News that Arsenal will give a free away match ticket to supporters who travelled to witness the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford suggests the club is now conducting fan relations along the lines of the old joke.
First prize: a ticket to see Arsenal away. Second prize? Two tickets to see Arsenal away. The gesture comes from a place of love, no doubt – but in no sane universe can it be the way to proceed.
None of what follows is in any way to denigrate Arsenal's travelling support, who justly won plaudits from all quarters last weekend for singing amusingly through the pain. Heroic is an adjective wildly overused in sport, but I doubt Achilles himself could have watched Ashley Young's stoppage-time goal curl in and still managed to raise a chorus of "8-9! We're going to win 8-9!" He was a resilient bastard, but possibly not that resilient.
I haven't heard how the travelling fans view Arsenal's well-meaning offer. My suspicion is that they will appreciate the irony of their club finally opening the chequebook, not to bolster the squad (though by the time you read this Arsenal will surely have made some purchases), but to ameliorate them with free tickets. It's like someone offering to help you with the gaping hole in your roof by buying you a puppy. Sweet, but misplaced.
Quite how the unprecedented offer will affect Arsenal players who might be feeling that bit humiliated is another matter. After all, nothing says "chin up" more resoundingly than your employer scrambling to compensate any fans who had the misfortune to spend the afternoon watching you play.
Our overriding concern, however, should be for the sporting precedent set. It's all very well offering fans an effective refund if an event is cancelled, but compensating them if it disappoints seems the way to madness. You pays your money, and you takes your chances – that is how the popular expression runs. You don't pays your money, and takes your compo if it turns out to be a shocker.
Anything else opens a can of worms in the world of sport. What determines the moment a fixture crosses the line between mere grimness, and a horror show so blood-curdling that compensation becomes a political necessity, if only to head off the emotional distress lawsuits? How many goals have to be shipped before Arsenal's newly established compensation structure kicks in? Seven? Eight gets you a free away ticket, evidently, but will six at least get you a bumper sticker and a digitally signed photo of Arsène Wenger?
And such debates are only the beginning. On paper, Arsenal's worst defeat in 115 years is the big one, but there are those who will have felt smaller horrors – perhaps unnoticed by the wider world – far more keenly than those gallows-humoured Gunners fans. A Portsmouth supporter's 12-hour, round-trip train journey to watch their team lose 1-0 at Ewood Park or wherever will, in the eyes of some, have been more acutely and ineffably depressing than having been present at a drubbing so historic, so baroque, that to say "I was there" is almost a badge of honour. And if at any point in the aforementioned doomed odyssey to Blackburn our notional Pompey supporter was faced with a sign reading "replacement bus service" – arguably the most depressing three words in the English language – then popping to Manchester to have one's arse handed to one might appear relative balm for the soul.
Ultimately, though, Arsenal's well-meaning gesture misunderstands the essential nature of fandom. If a small but undeniable part of following sport obsessively is self-loathing – and I am one of those convinced it is – then being taught such a ghastly lesson by one's team is at some level a masochistic form of just deserts. In the same way that it is fashionable to observe that compulsive gamblers are really addicted to losing (for that is all they ever really experience), so the sporting canon teems with books written by fans of various clubs who almost revel in the horrors of their side never living up to their potential.
I have wasted glorious sunny days sat in darkened rooms watching all manner of sporting events appear to ruin my life in one way or another, and I have made similarly dispiriting pilgrimages to be tortured live. That, I'm afraid, is my tough luck, and there's no one on earth who should think it anything but. I don't expect handouts – not even of anti-depressants – and we should thank any sports administrators contemplating following Arsenal's example to kindly leave us to our misery.
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