"It's a madting, still" - On the impossible rise of Arsenal Fan TV

"2-0 down against Brighton. No disrespect to Brighton, but who the fuck are Brighton blud? Am I a prick fam? Am I a dickhead now blud?" - Troopz, Brighton 2 Arsenal 1

Football, they say, is a game of opinions. We are usually told this as a matter of fact, rather than opinion, but fundamentally it is true. We live to have opinions on the football. Pondering his own mortality, Prince Hamlet would ask aloud to Globe audiences whether he should be. Or, simply, whether he shouldn't. Life or death. Existence or nothingness. I can assure you that he wouldn't have bothered asking, let alone even had the thought, had he a subscription to Sky Sports, a /r/soccer account and a Fantasy Football team to his name. He would have known that's all that there was, and all that there ever needed to be.

We are the opinion-wanters, the opinion-havers, the opinion-needers and the opinion-haters. All of the time and all at once. We are all of it, information and interpretation and instigation and implication, drowning in our molten sea of takes; ready to throw down with a stranger or better yet, a loved one, over a questionable straight red, a marginal offside or, most en vogue of all, a late, late VAR ruling. The pundits, while ostensibly qualified and well-compensated in their opinion-sharing, often fail to land with the common fan. We hold staunch opinions about their opinions. And usually, our opinion is that their opinions are the opinions of someone who shouldn't have their opinions paid much attention to. But hey, that's just what we think. That's just our opinion.

It is rare, for instance, that during Match of the Day - a 55-year-old format by the way - that you will find yourself illuminated by the earth-shattering description-analysis of Alan Shearer, one of the greatest Premier League players of all time, who occasionally talks through match highlights with all the enthusiasm, lyricism, nuance and insight of a weary Midlands train conductor who spends his entire day saying things like ‘the next stop is Leighton Buzzard. Leighton Buzzard the next stop’.

He isn't alone in facing the ire of the modern football consumer. Pretty much anyone popping up on an HD television screen is in the firing line from the fan who not only thinks that they could offer better analysis than the so-called expert, but now actually attempts to do so in all the far-reaching corners of the internet; in tweets, blogs, live streams, posts and, of course, reaction videos. Tim Berners-Lee probably didn't have it in mind when he first joined hypertext with the internet at CERN, but, deep down, it must have been obvious that the real reason he was doing what he was doing was so a confused young soccer fan in Denver could watch a man called Mark Goldbridge thrash about the screen in front of a Manchester United game. That must have been the endgame, surely.

The common fan, you see, whilst under-qualified, usually knows far more about their team through virtue of their own relentless dedication. They’re not experts, no, but at least they do their homework. And they fucking love their homework. There is a chasm between what the sheened, BBC-salary nodders and mumblers think and what the fan who sits 10 rows behind the goal knows. At some point, to test the theory, Robbie Lyle decided to stop listening to the opinions he didn't think were any good. He decided he’d go out and find some more. Some that were different. Some that, whilst not necessarily better, or more accurate, or more professional, were at least more honest, more emotional and therefore more representative of the fans watching at home.

The result was AFTV (called Arsenal Fan TV before the club politely got in touch and told them to rebrand), a YouTube channel watched from Holloway Road to Hong Kong that started out as a surveyor with a microphone running around after games trying to get people to talk to him. And usually getting told "to eff off".

Sat in a swanky board room on the top floor of a searing white office building overlooking St. James's Park, a terrace that used to house prime ministers Cardigan, Palmerston and Earl Grey no less, Robbie tells me the reason he started the whole venture.

"Being an Arsenal supporter I just wanted to create something that gave every fan their say. I’d be driving home after the games listening to Talk Sport or Five Live or watching Match of the Day later and a lot of the time the view of the pundits I didn’t share. I'd think: 'Hold on a minute, I was just down the pub after the game and we were chatting amongst ourselves…'"

Six and a half years, 246 league games and over 593 million views later, it is still growing, a self-fulfilling mini-media juggernaut; Sead Kolasinac rumbling down the left flank with a full head of steam.

It is, as they say, a madting. Still.

"We're worse now, with better players, than when we had Denilson and Bendtner" - DT, West Brom 3 Arsenal 1

A typical AFTV video is usually between three and seven minutes long and involves the host, Robbie, interviewing fans immediately after an Arsenal game outside the stadium. What follows is usually somewhere between an attempt at serious post-match analysis and full-blown spiritual and emotional exorcism, in which the interviewee will touch upon the performance of players, the tactical instructions of the manager and of course, the refereeing decisions.

If it's a bad result for Arsenal they will usually enter some kind of impassioned rant against the temperament of the players, or the efforts of the manager, or the luck of the opposition, or the organisation and structure of the club from top to bottom. If it is a good result for Arsenal, they will usually proclaim themselves to ‘be back’, ridicule whichever team it is that they defeated, then ridicule their fans for good measure too, for ever thinking they could beat Arsenal in the first place, before individually exulting their mighty heroes one-by-one.

If it is a draw, it is a draw, and nothing too outlandish is said.

"People didn't want to talk to us at first. I'd just ask them that question: 'What do you think?' But as people started to see us doing it more and more, and started to see the quality of what we were producing, to see us getting traction and the videos going out there and making an impact, more people wanted to speak.”

Now after games they can't move, quarantined into a corner by the hungry crowd, zombies in official club merchandise, that surround them. There is a quasi-religious element to it all, with Robbie serving as the de facto chieftain whilst the likes of DT, Troopz, Claude and Ty – the longest-serving and most recognisable of the regular contributors – act as the village elders, dishing out wisdom to those who seek it. Fans appear in an impromptu ruckus whenever an interview starts but then just stand there, silent and attentive, lost in the polemic. Or the rapture.

You could picture them all, sitting around the campfire, Wenger voodoo doll in hand, talking into being the fate of Arsenal Football Club as the tribe descend into a hypnotic festival of dance around them. 'What did you make of Aaron Ramsey’s performance today?' Robbie will ask, and they will, in no uncertain terms, tell him. They will tell him he was shit or they will tell him it was one of the best performances they have ever seen, they will tell him he’s too lightweight or they will tell him he is a powerhouse box-to-box conquistador. They will tell him that they will miss him when they are gone. They will tell him they’ll be fine without him. But, make no mistake, they will tell him what they think for as long as he will listen.

This is the ritual now and thousands, sometimes millions, will watch the dark magic cast into the flames: just one football fan talking football with another.

The formula, as simple as it is, proved effective, but what truly set the channel apart was the fact that each contributor was spliced into their own individual video. This isn't a panel discussion, after all. This is opinion speed-dating. At the Arsenal.

"YouTube told us that we couldn’t put out multiple short videos at the same time. They said it just didn’t work. You had to lump it all together. And we were like, nah, we want to keep them separate because we want everyone to have their own say. If you’ve got one really strong person and then the other person is not as strong, people might not watch it."

"They said 'Robbie you can’t do it that way. You can’t put out single videos that last 2 minutes, 3 minutes long. The algorithms gonna do this and that.' And everyone told me that we can’t do it but I was like, you know what, we’ll just do it anyway."

"I’m a bit like that. I like to do stuff that’s different. I’m a bit of a disruptor in that way. You know, I wanted to try it that way. And it worked.”

"We're all over the place. We're rubbish, we're fucking rubbish. We're rubbish. We are rubbish. I'm sorry, we are absolute rubbish." - Claude, Manchester City 3 Arsenal 0

Things temporarily came to a head for AFTV after they faced criticism from Hector Bellerin, not so much an Arsenal right-back now as a walking, talking embodiment of vibe. Not one vibe specifically - no, not exactly - more a loose, ponytailed representative of all of them. All of the vibes. All of the possible vibes in the known universe. An intelligent, eloquent, politically liberal and impossibly handsome footballer who speaks up about important issues across, not just the game, but society as well? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. And yet? Still the fashion show front-rower, super-likes-on-Tinder-merchant who strikes you as the kind of guy who could abruptly retire at 28 to go and start his own chain of vegan cafes in Shoreditch. Or run for local government in Spain. Or invent a face mask for men made of nothing other than hemp oil and ‘the sauce’ to permanently reverse the signs of ageing. And be comically successful at it all.

Appearing at the Oxford Union, Bellerin addressed important topics such as racism in football and mental health before he was asked what he thought of the criticism he occasionally receives on AFTV.

“I don't think there's players who go on the internet to watch Arsenal Fan TV,” Bellerin said. “It does sometimes pop up on your timeline. I see it sometimes, some friends say ‘oh have you heard what that guy on Arsenal FanTV said?’

“It's so wrong for someone who claims to be a fan and their success is fed off a failure. How can that be a fan? There's just people hustling, trying to make money their way, which everyone is entitled to do.”

It’s a common criticism of AFTV and one that stems from their most reactionary, incendiary videos. Which, yeah, can occasionally resemble watching the inner workings of a hand grenade immediately before detonation.

Robbie knows that most of the players know about AFTV and that, inevitably, some of them don’t like it.

"Obviously I’ve been told of the players that do like it. I’m aware of what Hector said that time but at the end of the day, we’re doing it for the fans. I’m not here to get the favour of players.

"Although I do want the players to know that the fans are behind them. I’m lucky enough to get followed by Aubameyang and I sent him a message after his penalty miss during the North London derby. I said 'Look, you’ve missed a penalty, but the fans were still singing your name at the end of the game. It’s just one of those things'. And he replied back with a thank you.

"Sometimes fans are going to say things that players don’t like. People don’t like being criticised. But if you’re a player and you embrace it, you’ll see. People are always like ‘your fans are very critical of your players’ but they never focus on when the fans are positive about the players and praise the players. If you watch our content as a whole you will see the honesty."

The rants, obviously, are the channel’s most viewed videos. Of course they are. The Wenger years proved the perfect divisive backdrop as fans came out and hollered and bellowed either in support of, or against, the man that - bar Herbert Chapman - has defined the club more than anybody else in its grand old history.

This was when AFTV most resembled a rowdy Athenian court, with regular contributors butting heads like horny stags lost in the forest over whether Wenger should stay or go.

Sort their videos by popularity and the one that comes out top – on 2.8 million views – is entitled, simply: ‘Liverpool 4 – Arsenal 0: Arsene Wenger is finished!!! (DT Angry Rant)’.

After that is an interview with Gary Neville, who himself called the channel ‘embarrassing’ after Arsenal lost 3-1 away at Stamford Bridge in February 2017 and Wenger came in for much of the post-match criticism. Ten days later he was appearing on the channel, sat opposite the likes of Troopz and Claude as their equal.

Then it’s more of the same: the 5-1 thrashing away at Bayern Munich (headline: 'Arsene Wenger is extinct!'), Arsenal 0 Crystal Palace 3 ('Passionate RANT') and West Brom 3 Arsenal 1 ('Arsene Wenger should resign TONIGHT!!! Troopz explicit rant').

"With Arsene Wenger I just wish that he had gone a few years sooner because I remember the good times of Wenger, when he first came to the club. I remember the great things he achieved. I remember us singing his name with pride. To see it end how it ended, I wasn’t enjoying that," says Robbie.

"You’ve still got to show it, you’ve still got to report it, you’ve still got to talk about it, but inside I was like argh. People don’t understand that and you’ll get some fans going, ‘Oh yeah you’re enjoying this, you’re gonna get a load of views out of it’ but they’re chatting crap because I’m an Arsenal fan.

"Last season, from January right through to May, that’s what it was like, every game. Apathy, moaning. It was horrible. You’d go away from home to some places and just get smacked.

"There was a real disconnect with the fans and the players and there were fans fighting with each other because you had the diehard guys who supported Arsene Wenger like ‘you’ve got to get behind the team’ and you had people that were very vociferous. They were fighting each other inside the ground.

"I think that was the worst because you can go to a ground and get a bad beating but you can come out. Sure, it’s horrible but if it’s like a one-off thing sometimes it’s almost like a bit of therapy so you can get other people feeling how you felt. When it’s week after week… and you’re coming out of every away game and going ‘that was fucking shit’ you look at it and think, this is it. I look at that now and I didn’t enjoy it at all."

It’s clear, like the meat stall at the market butcher throwing in ludicrous amounts of meat - something like 46 pork chops for a fiver - that AFTV know how to sell their videos.

They know what the fans want to pore over after a crushing defeat and equally, they know that other fans will want to jump in and soak in the milky, creamy schadenfreude bubblebath too.

To brand them malaise exploiters or misery bankers though is not only unfair, it misses the point entirely. They cover every game, home and away, and they react to it as fans would. Because that’s what they are. And, truth be told, that’s all they are. They just have a branded microphone and over 900,000 subscribers on YouTube. That's the only difference. It’s just pub talk. The same uncensored, unflinching, sometimes wildly inaccurate dissection of games that occur on wooden barstools around the country, writ large. It's just a bloke standing next to the Dennis Bergkamp statue telling another bloke why he thinks Shkodran Mustafi isn't fit to wear the shirt. That's all it is. Just with 80,000 views and nobody telling him he's wrong. And to fuck off.

Fans get angry all the time. Fans become disheartened after even the slightest hiccup all the time. A 0-0 away at Burnley? Of course that’s enough to send a loyal supporter tumbling down a rabbit hole of despair and self-loathing and fatalism. Why wouldn’t it be? Football means so much to people even when it’s bad. Especially when it’s bad. Putting that on camera is just like filming a lion maul an antelope. It's happening anyway, you can't stop it, you might as well hit record.

AFTV can be a joyous celebration of all that it means to be a supporter as well. On Sunday, March 10, Robbie and his team – now a strange kind of Marvel Avengers cast in their own right - met, as they always do for home games, by the cannons outside of the Armoury club shop two hours before kick off. It was Arsenal-Manchester United at the Emirates, a game big enough in its own right thanks to the Fergie/Wenger Keane/Vieira double rivalry, and Cesc Fabregas chucking a pepperoni slice in the tunnel once, but more so now given the implications it would have on the race for the fourth Champions League qualifying spot.

They assembled on the roundabout at the point where Bernwell Road meets Hornsey Street. They took over. They station there like its an army barracks up until about 20 minutes before the match and the time is spent not plotting content or planning videos but greeting one another, casually chewing the typically grisly Arsenal fat – in this case a Sokratis red-card-fuelled 3-1 defeat away at Rennes in the Europa League - and happily accepting the myriad requests for selfies each of them get from fans, fans who are coming from all over the world not only to see the Arsenal, but to see this now ubiquitous group of Arsenal fans, too.

They are part of the match day experience now, like the burger vans and the programmes, as much a part of the Emirates on a weekend or a drizzly midweek night as the bricks and mortar and the eternal defensive frailty.

Like it or not.

"I want to win the league. I want to win the league. You're too negative. Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?" - Ty, in response to Claude, Manchester City 3 Arsenal 2

There's been a noticeable sea-change on the channel ever since Unai Emery, the football manager most likely to be found sleeping hanging upside down in a gothic castle in Romania, took over at the start of the season.

Even despite coming off the back of a typically Wenger-like performance away in Europe (a 3-1 defeat to *checks notes* some French farmers because *turns page* any club in Ligue 1 that aren't PSG are farmers, apparently) the mood was positive. There were nerves, of course there were. United were buoyant having just knocked out the aforementioned farmer-destroyers in the Champions League and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had all but been confirmed as their permanent bus conductor such has been his performance at the wheel, driving Jose Mourinho's battered Toyota people carrier with no wheels like it was a jet ski.

After Robbie left to get to his seat in time for kick-off, I went to watch the game in the Tollington Arms, a pub you are only allowed to enter after going through something like the following exchange:

'Who do you support?'

Lying: Arsenal

'Do you have any Arsenal clothing on you?'

Er, no. My jumper is kinda red.

'Look, this pub is for Arsenal fans only, you need to prove you're an Arsenal fan to get in'

Well how do I do that? Ask me something.

'Where are you from?'

I meant about Arsenal. But Birmingham.

'Sorry you can't come in.'

We're here filming with AFTV.

'OH. The guys that were here earlier? Why didn't you say? That would have been easier wouldn't it. Come in'.

Checking inside to see what they were talking about, the filming the bouncer had been referring to became apparent. Uploaded several hours earlier, it featured Robbie, Troopz and who else but special guest Mark Goldbridge, going through their pre-match predictions.

It's a common misconception that Robbie knew all of the contributors before he started AFTV. The truth is, he found them all. Actually, it's more like they found him.

“I didn’t know any of these guys before they started. Not one of them. I remember when we first met Troopz. We had actually finished doing our interviews and we were packing up. He came along and wanted to get an interview. We were like, ‘Sorry, we’ve just finished filming. We’ve done about 15/16 videos, we’re done. We need to get these videos up.’

“He was like, ‘Come on, please. I really want to have my say’. I was like nope. I remember my camera guy saying to him ‘Nah we just can’t do it’. He just kept asking and asking and in the end it was almost like, just to get rid of this guy, we’re gonna do it."

"We filmed him and were like: actually, this guy’s a bit of a character. What happens with a lot of these guys when they come on for the first time is that they’ll come on and then they see that the reaction they got is quite good. So they get the confidence to come back on again. And I think that’s what happened with him."

Against United, Granit Xhaka - a player DT is particularly fond of after an encounter at the FIFA Awards, during which he started giving the 70-cap Swiss international tactical instructions - put Arsenal 1-0 up with a swerving low drive that looked for all the world as though it had taken a deflection to wrong-foot the normally tentacular David De Gea. It hadn't.

Romelu Lukaku, who had seemingly changed back into his G-Star Raw boot-cuts and an old pair of Timberlands after his midweek heroics in spandex and ballerina slippers, fluffed the best chance of the game onto the bar. Aubameyang, at the heart of AFTV discussion all week after a last-minute penalty miss in the North London derby, stepped up to seal it for the Gunners from the spot and ensure that, once again, fans would be waxing lyrical about the size of his testicles into the signature red microphone after the game.

The rain came right before full-time, scuppering Robbie's post-game Plan A: meet by the Bergkamp statue for filming. It was heavy enough to start blueprints for an Ark. Squinting and dripping over a WhatsApp message from him whilst huddled under the minor shelter of a burger stand, the realisation hit that the new AFTV meet-up point was at the other side of the stadium, under cover of the giant stairwell leading to Arsenal tube station. Running was no good. Upon arrival it was already an Arsenal hats and scarves mosh-pit of Aubameyang chants and people clambering up the walls to see the interviews. They had already started, the opinion-athon had already begun.

Filming the phenomenon from the outside in, rather the inside out as you see on YouTube, it was clear just how desperate people were for their five minutes. There were fans who had travelled from places like Coventry queueing up to speak. There was one fan from the slightly more exotic Miami. There were fans who started hijacking interviews with the JOE mic as though it was some kind of AFTV spinoff, an MTV 2 or Dave +1, assertively walking into the frame during filming and going on five-minute long monologues on all that the result means, the performance of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and the precise timing of Unai Emery's substitutions without anybody asking, with all the confidence of somebody who has never, not once in their life, not a single time, been told to shut the fuck off, much less to shut the fuck up and fuck the fuck off. You know, the nagging self-doubt that holds back any normal person opening up to strangers.

Is that a good thing? That AFTV is causing this, not an Instagram-thirst desperation for a fleeting minor fame exactly, but a self-perpetuating hubris, where fans who have appeared on the channel once or twice now conduct themselves like maverick Mark Lawrensons after the game, giddy-drunk from nothing but the swirling fumes of victory, tottering around the outskirts of the core interviews talking the ear off anybody who will even glance at them, let alone listen, about the fundamental principles of Emery-ball.

Looking at the viewing figures for their (25!) post-match videos, it's clear who the heavy hitters are. Troopz (usually the first interview) racks up over 460,000 views. DT 385,000. Ty 110,000, Claude almost 170,000, despite being the only person of a red disposition in North London trying to tell everyone not to get overexcited. Later he will quietly depart from the frenzy to walk home with a blind fan.

The reason these guys pull in the hits is mostly due to their personalities. They're real. They're so real. I almost regret to inform you how real they are. Speaking to them after their time with Robbie, none of them wavered. There was no hint of an act. Troopz really does talk in that slam poetry style of long pauses and Uzi bursts of language. DT is just about the most passionate individual you will ever meet, boiling away under the surface with a raw, heated kind of emotion, the kind of guy you could imagine either storming out of a stable office job because somebody used his favourite mug or phoning his mum to tell her he loves her and that life is beautiful because he won a balloon animal at the fair. And, let's be honest here, both of them are far more interesting and entertaining when they elucidate on camera than they are given credit for, than any of us could ever be. They've turned talking about Arsenal into an art form.

Ty calls it a privilege and an honour to be a part of AFTV for so long (he was first interviewed on their second day of filming). Immediately after that, voice still wavering with feeling and hand across the Arsenal badge on his Wenger-style long coat, faulty zip notwithstanding, he brands Manchester United cheats and mocks their overconfidence.

Claude is Claude, the great leveller of AFTV, who operates about 20,000 leagues under the emotional spectrum sea from the rest of them, in the inky darkness with all the strange fish that glow like lightbulbs, never fluctuating from a brutal pessimism honed through experience. He complained of a bout of food poisoning and was pleased with the result, although you'd never be able to tell.

Robbie stays there, interviewing fan after fan until late into the night. Most eventually go home, it being very cold and very wet and hours after the ember of the game has faded. He stays even after the fan interviews are done. There are still player ratings to be filmed. Round the corner there are two young men filming their own takes on an iPhone and another group a bit further up the road, further along the timeline, with a more professional looking setup; a camera, a toplight and a mic, doing it as well. They've got something to say. It's a game of opinions after all.