The Ashburton Army and the Arsenal fortress they occupy
In a season full of memorable moments for Arsenal, there is one that stands out in the minds of many players, executives and supporters. It was not a particular goal or an especially important victory but, instead, a reaction from the Emirates Stadium crowd in response to an error.
In the 53rd minute of Arsenal’s first home match of the campaign, against Leicester City, William Saliba headed the ball into his own net. A long pass over the top, horribly misjudged. It rolled into the corner almost apologetically and Saliba stared at his toes in despair as he realised what he had done.
This was Saliba’s first competitive game at the Emirates and, for the briefest of moments, he must have wished he was anywhere else in the world. And then, just a few seconds later, it started. The home crowd roared, for him as much as for the team. A few moments after that, the Frenchman received the ball, played the simplest of passes, and was cheered by 60,000 voices.
Has a footballer ever before been celebrated, by his own fans, for scoring an own goal? Mikel Arteta does not think so. “The way they reacted was something I have never seen in football,” the Arsenal manager said after the game. Later, sporting director Edu posted on social media: “How beautiful was the support for William Saliba!”
Within the first-team squad, too, it was a series of events that resonated deeply. Gabriel Martinelli, for example, has cited that moment as evidence that the atmosphere at the Emirates is better now than he has ever seen it. “When Willy scored an own goal…” he said a few months ago, almost in disbelief, “...they started to scream more, to support us more.”
The support for Saliba is just one example of the dramatic shift in mood at Arsenal’s home, which for so long was derided as being passionless but has now become a genuinely vibrant and intimidating arena. No Premier League team has won more points at home this season, despite Arsenal so far playing fewer home games than any other side.
Improved fan engagement
How has this happened? And why is it happening now? The obvious answer is that Arsenal are performing remarkably well, and the supporters have latched onto that. But the truth is that this transformation began in the early months of last season, when a new-look team was only just finding its feet and Arsenal were a long way from challenging for the title.
Many of the changes at the Emirates are a result of a concerted effort, from Arteta and the executives above him, to address the club’s long-standing atmosphere problem.
Some of these are emotional: Arteta’s visible passion on the touchline, for example, has galvanised the home fans during games. Louis Dunford’s ‘The Angel – North London Forever’ has become the pre-match anthem, with Arteta’s encouragement. And the sight of young players fighting for the cause – especially academy graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe – is always a source of enthusiasm, for any club in any league.
Alongside all this, there have also been significant logistical and practical developments. Influential supporter groups speak of greater engagement with the club now, especially following the debacle of the European Super League and the subsequent protests in April 2021 (which included an effigy of Stan Kroenke, the club’s owner, being hung outside the stadium).
The club has increased the number of tickets that can be bought at lower prices by younger supporters, which has helped to drive down the average age of matchgoing fans. They have also grouped together the members of the ‘Ashburton Army’ – a collection of young ultra-style supporters who wear all-black and sing relentlessly during games. The ‘Army’ has been sneered at by fans of other teams but their impact on the atmosphere at the Emirates cannot be questioned.
Among the new measures introduced by the club is a ‘use it or lose it’ rule, which means that season-ticket holders will surrender their seat if they do not attend at least 10 matches this year. These directives are encouraging fans to use the online ticket exchange, and have helped to reduce the number of empty seats at each game. Such is the demand, it is harder now to source tickets for home games than it has been for well over a decade.
As chief executive, Vinai Venkatesham is responsible for driving much of this change. But the strategy extends across the entire club, from venue director Tom McCann (a long-standing season ticket holder himself) to the communications department, which has deliberately altered the club’s output to make it more supporter-friendly in recent years.
All of these initiatives have strengthened the renewed enthusiasm from matchgoing fans following their Covid-enforced absence. The efforts of the team, too, have made a difference. When Arsenal lost 5-0 at Manchester City at the start of last season, Arteta grabbed his players and made sure they applauded the away supporters at the final whistle. In previous years, they would have slinked down the touchline.
Not so long ago, the Emirates was viewed as one of Arsenal’s potential weaknesses by opposition teams. As recently as December 2019, Brighton captain Lewis Dunk said his side’s game-plan was to exploit the atmosphere in north London, to make the crowd “turn” on Arsenal. The strategy was successful, and Arsenal were booed off in defeat.
Such an approach, it is safe to say, would no longer work. The Emirates, which is soon to be redecorated with eight new artworks as part of a multi-million pound refurbishment, has entered a new era along with Arteta’s new team. Once a weakness, the stadium is now an unlikely but powerful weapon in Arsenal’s charge for the title.