Is It Okay To Settle For Mediocrity From Your Team?
Arsenal fans are a funny bunch. They are often the butt of jokes from fellow football fans due to the failures of their team, and their somewhat over-the-top reactions to these failures, all perpetuated by the hilarious Arsenal TV, where fans moan about everything, from Wenger and top management to players who aren’t honoring the badge, whether Arsenal have won or not. For the record, I quite like Arsenal (I’m married to a Gooner) and still have fond memories of Bergkamp, Henry, Viera and the other invincibles. Their change in fortunes over the years hasn’t exactly been catastrophic, they seem to win the FA Cup every other year, and their failure to reach the Champions League this season was for the first time in 17 years, but Arsenal fans expect more. Should they?
Before Arsene Wenger, a figure whose iconic status amongst the fan base has been dwindling year-on-year, took over the club back in 1996 they had only won the league twice in 26 years, and generally bobbed around the middle of the top half. Yet the fans got used to Wenger’s early successes, and now an FA cup win is just not enough. As an Aston Villa fan, I can honestly say to win just one FA Cup would send me in to delirium. Hell, holding on to a Championship play-off spot still seems like a giddy dream, but Arsenal fans feel their club is entitled to more. It’s easy to mock, but I know where they are coming from, and they are hardly alone.
I recently ranted to my fellow Bath Rugby fans on our Whatsapp group about how the club was an insult to the fans. Season after season lingering in mid-table, inconsistent and maddening, losing key matches, choking in cup finals. I chastised their patchy recruitment and their reliance on loaned players. This, I argued, was an insult to a team that used to dominate. A dynasty. But the fact is that Bath’s time at the top is long in the past. This season marks 20 years since their loan European Cup victory, and the last time they won a major trophy. Why should fans expect more? You see similar traits in fans of the Gunners, as well as Spurs, Newcastle and Liverpool in football.
A lot of these expectations come down to new owners. New suits come in promising that they will get the team back to the top, and us fans believe them. The trouble is, this rarely ever pans out. It’s important to remember that most owners don’t really care so much about results then they do about how much money they can make. Of course, the better the team the more money they will earn, but sometimes owners will simply want to make ends meet. The lower leagues are littered with teams who were used as vanity projects by rich folks and were left absolutely ruined when all was said and done. There are always the Chelsea’s and Manchester City’s of this world as examples of successful investments, but in these cases we are talking obscene amounts of money, and for every team and their fans to expect this is totally unreasonable.
It’s much easier to embrace mediocrity in the NFL. The nature of the league means that things can be baron for a few seasons, but the salary cap and the draft system results in franchises in transition rising to the top relatively quickly if they got the combinations of GM, coaching staff and rosters just right. My team, the San Francisco 49ers, have been in the wilderness for a few seasons now. They were 1-10 with five games to go this season, but a young team getting steadily better and a maverick young coach and GM finally put the pieces together when they were joined by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Suddenly the pieces fit, and they won their final 5 games, including seeing off AFC finalists Jacksonville (another team who have benefited from the quick-changing fortunes in the NFL) and they look like a strong play-off bet for next season. NFL fans can stomach mediocrity, as long as the chance of a turnaround is possible (the Cleveland Browns are a notable exception)
But in the harsher, unregulated world of English Football mediocrity is more of a permanence. Salary caps would help, of course, but due to the competitiveness of the other European leagues, as well as the rising prominence of Major League Soccer and the Chinese leagues, makes this is unlikely, unless it’s sanctioned by the always ethical and not-at-all profit minded FIFA. Plus, there will always inevitably be loopholes that some of the wealthier teams would exploit. So mid-table is about all that most teams can hope for, for now.
So, should fans just be happy with their lot? Well, yes and no. It is, after all, all about perception. I’m sure Huddersfield fans would be ecstatic to be in Arsenal’s position. But were they are is truly remarkable all things considered. Conversely, Sunderland fans have the right to be angry with how their club has been managed. What is really important to remember, and it’s amazingly simple, but there is only room at the top for one. And, yes, it’s frustrating that that one is always a team that have more power, resources and money than your team. Manchester City, Chelsea, Saracens, New England Patriots, these are the teams that, for now, will dominate. However, it is not always very fun being constantly at the top. I remember asking a friend who is a Manchester United fan whether he had a stronger emotional reaction when his team lost or won in the Ferguson era. It was losing. Winning gave him nothing but relief, losing cruched him. I sometimes think Manchester United fans aren’t yet at the level of Arsenal fans in lambasting their team because it is a relief not being at the top.
That is not to say your team are never going to get to the top. Yes, it’s frustrating, yes, it’s jarring, yes, it hurts like anything to see something you love fail so often. But that is the beauty of being a fan. Embracing mediocrity means that the little successes, which sometimes lead to big successes, are all the sweeter. Just ask Leicester City fans. Sport should not make us constantly miserable, and Arsenal fans might find that lowering their expectations may make the victories all the more enjoyable.