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Ahead of the recent clash between Manchester United and Arsenal, the spotlight was well and truly on one man. Mercurial Dutch striker Robin van Persie was facing his old club for the first time with his name on the forefront of the lips of Arsenal fans worldwide, more often than not accompanied with the choicest of swear words guaranteed to make any truck driver blush. And the current Manchester United number 20 responded in the best possible way. Hardly had the game started then the former Arsenal captain pounced on a mistake by his successor Vermaelen and put away a right footed volley with the consummate ease we have learnt to associate him with. The fact that he refused to celebrate in front of the away fans who it seemed had all simultaneously made it their lives’ goal to boo and heckle their former hero, did nothing to harm his already growing reputation at Old Trafford.
An interesting conversation with an Arsenal supporting friend of mine before the game gave me a chance to understand why so many Arsenal fans are so hell bent on hating RVP’s guts. After all he isn’t the first high profile player to walk out of the Emirates in recent times with the likes of Henry, Fabregas, Nasri, Clichy and Song trodding the now well worn path. According to the afore mentioned Arsenal fan, allowances could be made in the above cases owing to Catalunya roots, childhood dreams etc etc.
Let’s try and look at the whole situation from an Arsenal fan’s point of view. On 17 May 2004, Van Persie signed a four-year deal with Arsenal for £2.75 million as a long term replacement for fellow Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp. Early in his career Wenger saw the potential of RVP as a striker and just like he did with Henry, it wasn’t long before Van Persie was plying his trade down the middle of the pitch rather than the left side of midfield. Van Persie’s Arsenal career sparkled in fits and starts with a worrying trend of injuries plaguing him every time he hit a patch of form never let him really set the Premier League alight. That is until the 2011-12 season. Following the transfer of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona, Van Persie was given the captain’s armband and didn’t he respond well. Much to the delight of the North London faithful and the despair of rival teams Van Persie started and finished the season hitting the back of the net with alarming ease (unfortunately accompanied by the annoying “He scores when he wants” chant). Van Persie finished as the top goal-scorer in the Premier League with 30 goals becoming only the second player to score against 17 different Premier League opponents in a single campaign. However, not all was rosy with Van Persie now entering into the final year of his contract. Arsenal’s failure to tie down their most prized possession looked like coming back to haunt them. Even the early season captures of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski was not enough to convince the striker to stay as he announced that he would indeed not be renewing his contract on July 4th of this year. Potential suitors mentioned were Juventus, Manchester City and Manchester United. United seemed to be the least likely of the 3 but as it turns out the red half of Manchester is where he has ended up.
So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an Arsenal fan. Firstly any player publicly saying he wants out of a football club will face the backlash of the fans. Considered a betrayal, blood thirsty fans will definitely not let the apparent slight on the club pass without retaliation. Also the fact that the club had stood by him through numerous injuries meant that the fans expected loyalty in return. Certainly more loyalty than what they perceived was only 1 good season from him. The fact that he was the club captain did him no favors either. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?” William Congreve had obviously never met an angry football fan in the terraces.
And what compelled Robin Van Persie to break the hearts of Arsenal fans? The most obvious answer is silverware. Medals around his neck, trophies in his arms and victory laps around stadiums filled with delirious fans is what every professional footballer dreams of. Having arrived at the back of the famous “Invincible” season one couldn’t fault Van Persie for thinking that he would soon be rolling in trophies. However a meager return of 1 FA Cup and 1 Community Shield in 8 years is certainly nothing to write home about. The fact that Arsenal allowed him to run his contract down to the last season ensured that he could call all the shots as his refusal to sign a new contract meant Arsenal’s hand was forced as they couldn’t afford to lose him on a free. At the age of 29, time was running out and in the form of his life, suitors weren’t hard to come by either. It was almost as if the stars had aligned for RVP to embark on a new journey. Without sounding condescending (okay maybe a little) to Van Persie, Arsenal to Manchester United was nothing but a step up in his career not much unlike Feyenoord to Arsenal in the first place. Obviously Feyenoord to Arsenal was a much bigger step up but in essence the reasons behind the move can be traced back to the same. And this is without taking the famous ‘little boy’ in him into account. “I always listen to the little boy inside of me in these situations – when you have to make the harder decisions in life. What does he want? That boy was screaming for Man United.” A reported phone call to Edwin Van der Sar also served to help the Dutchman’s decision to make Old Trafford his new stomping ground.
Despite this, many Arsenal fans including everyone’s favourite high profile supporter Piers ‘Wenger out’ Morgan have deigned it proper to refer to him as Robin van Pursestrings. The implied suggestion is laughable. While I have no doubt his move to United led to a sizable pay rise I really don’t see how that was a major motivation for his move.
But this is the nuetral-ish fan in me talking. If I was an Arsenal fan I daresay my opinions would have been vastly different. So the question is do football fans expect too much from modern day footballers? The infamous present day footballer is stereotypically portrayed as a money grubbing, party loving playboy who certainly isn’t shy of flirting with other clubs. Whereas what a fan ideally expects from a footballer who wears their club colours is for them to essentially act as fans themselves. A footballer must eat, sleep and think about the club, not to mention profess their love and pledge their undying loyalty (preferably written in blood). The truth, as it often is, can be found somewhere in between. After all high profile transfers between rivals are hardly anything new. The likes of Luis Figo, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell, Carlos Tevez, Fernando Torres, etc have all incurred the wrath of their old clubs after moving on to newer if not always greener pastures. So does the fault lie in our expectations? Is it time we realised that unless a footballer is home grown the likelihood of him having the same loyalty towards the club that the supporters do is fairly slim? We may not like it but this is something we unfortunately have to come to terms with. The Judas Syndrome is well and truly around us and there are no signs of remission.