For fans, by fans, against the club: Why AFTV's successes are intrinsically linked to Arsenal's failures
The story of Arsenal Fan TV — since rebranded as AFTV, reportedly after a polite request from the club not to infringe its copyright — begins, strictly speaking, in 2012
London: Chris Davies walked out of the Emirates Stadium feeling, he said, as if he were "filled with fire". As most of his fellow Arsenal fans trudged dolorously away from last Saturday's 2-2 draw with lowly Southampton, seeking shelter in the pubs of the Holloway Road or the sanctuary of the Tube, he strode toward the statue of Dennis Bergkamp on the perimeter of the club's North London home.
Plenty of other fans had the same thought. When Davies arrived at the statue, a crowd of several hundred had already gathered. For many of them, this has become part of the ritual of going to the Emirates, the fabric of the matchday experience: A couple of drinks, a bite to eat, watching Arsenal play and then waiting by the Bergkamp statue to watch the creators of the YouTube channel formerly known as Arsenal Fan TV film their postmatch interviews.
Some come for the spectacle, the circus of it all. Others treat it as a sort of impromptu town hall meeting: They listen to the speakers, debate their points, cheer the claims they like and jeer those they do not. They start chants and shout cutting one-liners. At the end, they may grab a selfie with one of the channel’s regular guests.
But on this Saturday, Davies — like many others — had come to speak. He had come to observe before, but this would be his first time as a participant. He felt like he had no other choice. "This is the only outlet fans have," he said. "Where else are we going to be heard?"
So he took up his place in the crowd. He waited patiently for the channel’s host, Robbie Lyle, to arrive and for the equipment to be set up. He listened attentively to the regulars as they had their say. And then he was up, the camera’s light on his face: his chance to express his views to the channel's 1.1 million subscribers.
And Davies let his beloved club have it.
The story of Arsenal Fan TV — since rebranded as AFTV, reportedly after a polite request from the club not to infringe its copyright — begins, strictly speaking, in 2012. That was when Lyle, then working as a surveyor, first turned up at the Emirates on a matchday with a cameraman and started asking fans for their reaction to what they had just seen. The initial response to the video clips he posted online, he has said previously, was skeptical at best.
That changed, permanently, with Chris Hudson. In 2013, Lyle spoke to Hudson after Arsenal had lost at home to Aston Villa. Hudson’s expletive-laden rant — pointing his finger at the camera, railing against "media luvvies" and demanding the resignation of pretty much anyone he could think of — went viral. AFTV went with it.
Now, the channel is a giant of the genre. It passed a million YouTube subscribers in May. It has its own merchandising line. It has expanded into studio shows and podcasts and inspired imitations and equivalents at pretty much every club in England. Lyle has suggested it is now his full-time job. Last year, he started hosting a program on one of Britain’s national television networks. Many of his regular guests appeared with him.
Some of them have become stars in their own right. It is them that many of the crowd come to see and, more important, to hear. A galaxy of phones are thrust into the sky when any of them are interviewed. They are deluged with requests for selfies or simply for handshakes. They are collared as they try to leave by fans seeking a private audience — mostly to vent about Arsenal and its failings but sometimes about more personal subjects.
"It's weird, people approaching us for pictures," said Troopz, one of the best-known characters (he declined to reveal his real name). “As far as I’m concerned, I’m just a fan, just like them. I just give my opinion on a YouTube channel. It’s elevated us and put us in places you wouldn’t really think of.”
One of those places is in the orbit of some of Arsenal’s players. Troopz cites Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, two of the club’s jewels, as confidants. Earlier this month, Arsenal was reported to have asked Aubameyang to stop inviting Troopz to watch games from the striker’s private box. “I talk with who I want, whenever I want,” Aubameyang wrote on Instagram in response, ending the post with a middle-finger emoji.
Arsenal’s unease hints at an inherent tension between the club and the channel. Like all fan-generated media, AFTV has taken on some of the characteristics not only of the club it follows but of the era in which it was born. It rose to prominence during a schism, as fans debated the future of former manager Arsène Wenger, a time of planes hired to fly over stadiums, banners unfurled and even fights breaking out.
Most of its greatest hits reflect that simmering discontent. Its most popular videos on YouTube, some viewed as many as three million times, follow in Hudson’s footsteps; they have titles like “Troopz Angry Rant” and “Wenger Must Resign”.
That has engendered a feeling among some that, because the medium rewards performative outrage, the chase for YouTube hits incentivises guests to be more extreme in their views. Troopz denied that — “It’s real, it’s me,” he said — but others are less convinced.
“It doesn’t reflect real fans,” said Glodi Kweme, watching AFTV record after attending his first Arsenal game. “People use it to say something outlandish so they can get known.” Another fan, Jordan Louis, called it “clout-chasing.”
More troublingly, there is a belief within the club that what is good for Arsenal and what is good for AFTV are two very different things. “It is so wrong for someone who claims to be a fan and their success is fed off a failure,” defender Héctor Bellerín said at an event at the Oxford Union last year. “How can that be a fan?”
Bellerín acknowledged he has no problem with “people hustling, trying to make money their way,” but some within the club’s hierarchy disagree. To AFTV’s regulars, however, what they say on the channel is simply a response to what is happening to the team. “It reflects the club,” Troopz said. “When things were good last year, nobody talked about how we were praising the team.”
To the channel’s critics, though, including those inside Arsenal, it is the other way around. The atmosphere at the Emirates is volatile and fractious, and the club is only ever one bad result from a crisis, in part because of the performative outrage on YouTube. Nobody is quite sure which is the chicken and which is the egg.
Time to go
About 30 minutes after Saturday’s match, there is barely space to move between the Bergkamp statue and an adjacent merchandising store when a cheer goes up and Lyle appears. It has been a bad day for Arsenal, a late Lacazette equaliser rescuing a solitary point at home. That should mean a good day for content.
Lyle is a good interviewer: He is patient, rarely interjects and allows his subjects to range. He will publish 20 videos from this recording session, none of them more than five minutes long, but he does not rush anyone. They are here to talk. He gives the impression he is happy to listen.
Most of them cover the same ground — there is a groundswell of opinion that the current manager, Unai Emery, has to go, and that failure to act now reflects poorly on the club’s board — but there are a couple of flourishes: One man ostentatiously throws his season ticket away; a regular reveals he left his son at home on his 9th birthday because he knew Arsenal would ruin his day.
The crowd roars with approval. There are sporadic chants of “time to go.” It is part pantomime, part public forum, part psychiatrist’s couch. “The majority of them are quite fair,” said Faizaan Firozdin, watching from the back. “What they say is what most of the fans are thinking.”
The channel’s followers believe that gives it a power and a relevance. Davies is “100 percent” convinced that it was the compelling evidence of AFTV that forced the club’s hand and finally ended Wenger’s 20-plus-year tenure as manager. Firozdin is adamant that “the main guys’ voices are heard” by the players and by their employers.
Quite how far that power goes, though, is a different matter. “The internet and reality are two different things,” Troopz says. The Southampton game is the first time, he says, that he has heard voluble dissatisfaction with Emery inside the stadium, although it had been bubbling online for months. If the sense of crisis is bleeding into real life, then that is not because of what the internet has said; it is because of how badly the team is playing.
Lyle stays in position for a couple of hours, interviewing everyone who wants to speak. By the end, the crowd has dwindled a little. Most of those who came for the circus have moved on, their appetite for rubbernecking satiated. Those who remain are the devout and the desperate. Each interview, now, is more of a conversation, not with Lyle but with those watching.
All of the videos go online that night. The most popular one — with another regular, DT, calling for Emery to be fired immediately — will collect more than 800,000 views in a few days. Firozdin was at the back of the scrum when that was recorded, but the hubbub was too much and the distance too far for him to hear much of it. “It’s OK” he says. “I’ll watch it when I get home.”
Rory Smith c.2019 The New York Times Company
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