It was coming, wasn’t it? Not the jeers which descended upon Jack Wilshere from the high banks of White Hart Lane, but the ankle injury which drew them. Every time he has taken a tackle this season, or thrown himself into one, the world has waited for him to get up limping. Eventually, early in the second-half of Bournemouth 4-0 loss to Tottenham, that moment arrived. Down went Wilshere, up came the ironic cheers. Inevitably, that giddy schadenfreude has since drawn a damning judgement from some parts of the commentariat.
“Thou shalt not celebrate injury.”
As has been highlighted by many different people and in many different places, Wilshere brought this upon himself. Through his actions rather than his play, he has cast himself as the comedy villain within the north London rivalry and that’s evidently a role he enjoys. When he led the bus-top celebrations during Arsenal’s last FA Cup parade, it was ill-advised on account of how little he’d contributed to that success and the language he used, but in another way it was really quite welcome. Within the myriad complaints about modern football, lies a deep regret over the weakening attachment between supporters and players, and here was Wilshere bucking that trend.
On the one hand, the FA were right to discipline him. He’d received prior warning over his conduct in such situations and chose to ignore it. On the other, though, most Tottenham supporters would likely concede, albeit through gritted teeth, that Wilshere evidently understands the rivalry and that it’s better for that. With reference to him specifically, the running battles he’s had with the Spurs fanbase have typically been “eyebrows up” affairs; he’s more of a provocateur than an outright menace and, in return, he’s treated as such.
And that was really the tone of what happened on Saturday.
Football fans are accused of a lot. Less now than they once were, but society – and that includes elements within the national sports press – still has a habit of looking down upon them. However, at least when it comes to serious injury, most fans are extremely respectful. Earlier this season, when Ryan Mason was carried from the field at Stamford Bridge (before it was fully known how grave his situation was) he was applauded by all four sides of the ground. Mason is a former Tottenham player and had even been a protagonist within the fractious encounter between the two sides last May, but everybody there that day knew that it was neither the time nor the place for either past grievances or tribalism.
It was a touching moment, but also one true to the spirit of fandom in a way which isn’t regularly discussed. Despite how they’re often portrayed, fans do have a sense for when it’s right to suspend the animosity.
Jack Wilshere was not seriously hurt at White Hart Lane. His injury may yet keep him on the sidelines for a while, but there was no suggestion that his career was in danger on Saturday. He left the field without needing a stretcher, was able to walk down the tunnel and, initially, Bournemouth’s management had insisted that he keep playing.
On that basis, the moralising which has taken place seems wholly disproportionate. Rather than Arsenal supporters simply taking umbrage with a rival set of fans, which they’re entitled to do, the reaction can be characterised as belonging to a more archaic habit. It’s been a “listen to what these dreadful people are saying” type of response and has betrayed a sense of superiority which, perhaps naively, was hoped to be a thing of the past.
A point has been reached at which it has become almost impossible for football to win. Now, its every step invites criticism. Either there is not enough atmosphere inside grounds, or not the right kind. Crowds are flogged for their non-traditional demographics, but also lectured for not evolving in-step with the latest metropolitan musings on how life should be lived. There is always a complaint. We demand fans be emotionally invested, while at the same time taking every possible opportunity to admonish them for how that loyalty manifests. Clear lines have been drawn, rightly, between the kind of behaviour which is and is not acceptable and active prejudice does mercifully now seem to be on the retreat. There is, however, a clear difference between rallying against football’s societal wrongs and taking issue with benign events which, really, don’t require more than a passing mention.
“This happened today.”
“Really? That makes me happy/sad/laugh/annoyed…”
Did the light joshing of Wilshere really require a pious debate about what constitutes the “right way to behave”? Is the player himself now psychologically wounded or, as has always been a feature of top-level sport, is he healthily plotting how best to silence those fans in the future?
This has been a mischievous episode, nothing darker, nothing more sinister. It was back-and-forth, give-and-take and, actually, when that no longer exists British football will be poorer as a result. To remove that dynamic, or to attempt to censor it whenever it impinges on some mild sensitivity, is to move further along a road which leads to total sanitisation.
Really, it represents an attempt to enforce armchair fan values on the real world.