‘We can’t stop watching’ – Arsenal’s reluctant rebel fans

It’s the most important league match the Emirates Stadium has ever staged but Stuart Morgan, an Arsenal season ticket holder, is 24 miles away in the town of Chertsey.

He’s sipping a lager beneath the low ceiling of a modest clubhouse. The TV broadcasting Arsenal’s game against Manchester City produces a tinny sound. He’s living every kick of the ball, nodding his head as if he was on the end of a Gabriel Martinelli cross. But he’s a long way from the action.

He’s gifted his usual seat, to the right of the goal at the Clock End, to a mate. It’s a staggering situation. Cut this man open and he’ll bleed every shade of red the Arsenal have ever worn and yet he has willingly passed on the opportunity to watch Mikel Arteta’s side take on Erling Haaland, Kevin de Bruyne and the rest under lights. Why?

“I wanted to make sure I told the full story of Dial Square FC,” he says, around half an hour before kick-off.

“It’s important we tell the story properly.”

The start of this tale is debatable. Some believe it begins with the formation of Dial Square Football Club in 2020 after a group of Arsenal fans, led by Morgan, became disaffected with the way the north London club was run.

Others argue the story’s first lines were written in 2018 when the American billionaire Stan Kroenke became the outright owner of Arsenal.

Perhaps we need to go back further to 2006 and the demolition of Highbury, or to the banning of standing terraces in 1994, or whenever half-and-half scarves were first spotted outside football grounds.

“Something has happened in the modern elite game that just doesn’t sit right with a lot of fans,” Morgan says. “There’s this feeling in your gut, it’s deep inside you, that you know isn’t right.

“It’s the money. It’s the greed. It’s the way fans are treated as customers. We’re made to feel that the only reason we exist is to spend more money.

“A lot has changed and it’s not all for the good. The club badge, the stadium, ticket prices, there seems to be a new kit every other week. It’s not the Arsenal I fell in love with.

“So, rather than just mope about it, I decided to do something.”

Morgan, who works in the construction industry, has experience in non-league football administration. He held a director’s role at Camberley Town in 2016 and helped steer the club to the semi-final of the FA Vase that year.

That gave him the confidence to branch out on his own. So too did the fortunes of AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, two clubs that sprung from the disenchantment of fans eager for a greater voice in how their teams were run.

Dial Square was the original name of Arsenal Football club, coined by munitions factory workers in Woolwich, south-east London in 1886.

A month later they rebranded as Royal Arsenal and did so again in 1893 when they became Woolwich Arsenal. The club crossed the river to north London in 1913.

Morgan’s long-term plan is to find a permanent home for Dial Square as close to the founding factory in Woolwich as possible.

For now they are tenants at Alwyns Lane, the home of Chertsey Football Club.

Four days before Arsenal’s game against Manchester City, Dial Square are hosting Lightwater United Football Club under grey Surrey skies.

The players wear deep burgundy shirts with matching socks and white shorts. The club’s badge is predominantly occupied by a sundial signifying a ‘new dawn’. A banner below contains the Latin word renascitur, meaning reborn. On either side are two acorns, both a symbol of a new beginning as well as a nod to the Royal Oak pub where Morgan’s idea first took root.

Dial Square dominate the game. Morgan is a whir of activity. He’s constantly on his phone as he updates chat forums and the club’s social media channels. They now have over 4,000 followers on Twitter with fans in Norway, New Zealand, Germany and the United States.

There are about 50 people in attendance at Alwyns Lane. It’s a sizeable number for a match in Division One of the Surrey County Intermediate League (Western) – the 12th tier of English football. Almost all of them share the same split allegiance – they are also fans of Arsenal.

“I’ll always be an Arsenal fan,” says Dave Nathan, whose great-grandfather was a groundsman at Highbury in the 1920s. His grandmother washed the Arsenal players’ kit on an iron washboard behind the North Bank stand, previously known as the Laundry End.

“I wonder if that’s because of my nan,” Nathan says, just as Dial Square’s towering centre-back Adam Sewell sweeps home the game’s opener.

“I could have been born in Timbuktu and I’d still have been given a red and white scarf for Christmas. Arsenal is in my DNA.”

Nathan says that going to football “used to be a feeling”. He speaks of an idyllic setting where “it didn’t matter how much money you had in the bank, all that mattered was you became part of the Arsenal.

“Now I feel that too many people in the Emirates see their ticket as a status symbol. And I’m not going to criticise anyone for going. But personally I feel that it’s changed too much. The atmosphere is so quiet. It’s missing that magic, that sense of community that I had before.

“I wondered if I’d ever get that back. I travelled around the country and did the 92, which for me meant I went to every ground that had a turnstile and charged you a fee for a ticket for a game of football.

“And as I went down the pyramid there’s a stronger connection between the club and the fans. They appreciate every penny you give them.”

But no other club could scratch that itch. So Nathan returned to the Emirates.

“It was the game where Andy Carroll out-jumped Manuel Almunia [in 2010 when Newcastle won 1-0],” Nathan says. “I’d tried to get my partner’s son to the game but there were no tickets, which was a shame. So I went myself.

“But when I was there I saw so many empty seats. Members who just decided they didn’t fancy it. Or corporate types who were not interested. World War Three could have started on the pitch and these boys in suits in the stands, on their phones, chat chatting to each other, wouldn’t have noticed.

“Then they left 20 minutes before the game was over. I was fuming. My step-son could have been there.

“My dad, who was ex-military, raised me to do things ‘the Arsenal way’, as he’d say. I thought, ‘This isn’t the Arsenal way. They’ve lost the Arsenal way’. I’ve been looking for something like [Dial Square] ever since. What we’ve got here is special.”

Dial Square have a corner and, after a few scrappy touches from both teams, Sewell nods in his second. At the other end, behind Dial Square goalkeeper Aaron Bufton, hang two large banners.

One reads ‘Created by the poor. Stolen by the Rich’. Another displays the hashtag #KeepGreedOutOfFootball.

“It’s really that simple,” explains Andreas Charalambous, a lecturer at the University Campus of Football Business located at Wembley Stadium.

“People might think we have a hidden agenda. We’re doing things right. I came here to feel like a comrade, not a customer.”

Charalambous also serves as the chairman of Dial Square FC Enterprise (DSFCE), which owns 15% of the club. The remaining 85% is currently owned by Morgan, though his aim is to loosen his hold over time and give full control to DSFCE.

DSFCE is comprised of members, not shareholders, who each spend £90 a year to join as a ‘full fan owner’. They have equal voting rights and every member is encouraged to voice their opinion concerning the day-to-day running of the club.

“All anyone wants is to feel like they have a say, that what they say matters,” Morgan adds. “When you come here you feel empowered. You actually matter. You can’t underestimate how significant that is for football fans.”

When asked how he feels about Arsenal today, Morgan takes a beat. Usually he’s a torrent of words as his lips move faster than Bukayo Saka’s feet. You can see that this is a question he’s still grappling with.

“To be honest, it’s love-hate,” he says. “When I go to the ground, I try to put these things to the back of my mind.

“Do I feel guilty at all? Maybe a little. But I go to watch my football club. The football club I’ve always watched and loved. The owners will come and go. Kroenke will one day sell the club for a profit. I’ll still be there.

“And we encourage people to continue to support Arsenal. It’s never been an either-or thing. We’re not black and white. We’d never tell anyone that they have to choose. We have Dial Square fans come down wearing Arsenal shirts and that’s great. You can’t turn off the tap. Supporting Arsenal, it’s in the body, it’s in your blood.”

For Marc Brewer, who first attended a game at Highbury back in the 1970s as an eight-year-old, this is especially true.

His left forearm is inked with Arsenal’s name in the classic gothic font. His right is a canvas for the old crest – the one with the white markings like tiny Christmas trees and the more realistic looking cannon.

Brewer’s devotion is more than skin deep. His oldest son is named James Charles Paul Merson Brewer. His second son is named Mathew Joseph Ian Wright Brewer. When his daughter was born he kept the tradition going and called her Hollie-Ann Manu Petit Louise Brewer.

“They’re mouthfuls,” he says of his kids’ names, “but it shows how much I love Arsenal.”

Brewer, Dial Square’s secretary who also sits on DSFCE’s board of directors, has been to the Emirates twice, but felt hollow on both occasions. He can’t recall who Arsenal were playing. “It didn’t leave an impression,” he says.

If Brewer is jaded, it’s easy to understand why. A week after he inked the club’s crest on his arm it changed to its current iteration. Softer lines, brighter colours, more in keeping with modern aesthetics.

“What was the point?” Brewer asks. “It’s like change for change’s sake. It’s weird. I can’t relate to it any more.

“It’s painful. It really is. It feels like I’ve lost something. I can’t stop watching though. I’ll always want Arsenal to win, but that feeling of connection is gone.

“So I joined Dial Square. And starting at this low level, to be on the journey from the start, that’s something that is really appealing to me.”

That sentiment is echoed by both fans and players. The club captain, 34-year-old Eddie McKinlay, knows that his hopes of playing at a higher level are over. But he recognises that he has the chance to establish a legacy at a club with great ambitions.

“This current group has a chance to do something genuinely amazing,” he says after his team completes a 4-1 win. “In 10 or 20 years we can look back and say: ‘We were there at the start. We helped make this happen.’ Not every club can offer that.”

Morgan is steadfast in where this start leads. His aim is to oversee Dial Square’s entry into the Football League within 10 years.

“When we started we set ourselves the target of getting to step six [tier 10] by the end of our fifth season,” he says. “If we get promoted this year, which we will, and get promoted again next year, we’d have got there with a year to spare.”

At the moment, the project is funded by members’ contributions, Morgan’s pocket – he estimates he puts in £3,000 a year – a loan from a director and a sponsorship deal with a wealth management company.

The online club shop has brought in £8,000, with products that trade on Arsenal’s past and Dial Square’s present. Beanies are especially popular. The yellow away strip that mirrors Arsenal’s 1971 Double-winning team sold out in no time.

“As we climb the ladder we’ll attract more interest,” says Morgan. “We’ll attract more fans that will show support for our project by purchasing our shirts. We’ll get more sponsors and sell more shirts and more players will want to join. The only way is up.”

Dial Square’s win over Lightwater lifts them to second in the league.

Four days on, just as Arsenal’s players are going through their warm-up on the clubhouse screen, news filters through of Dial Square’s own title race. They have been awarded a further three points for a previously cancelled game. Now they’re two points off the league leaders, Laleham and Kempton FC, with a game in hand.

It doesn’t go as well for Arsenal. De Bruyne’s superb opener is cancelled out by a Saka penalty, but it’s one-way traffic in the second half. City’s better-stocked bench makes the difference as Jack Grealish and then Haaland score to secure a 3-1 win.

Morgan, Nathan, Brewer and the rest inside Chertsey’s clubhouse are crestfallen at the final whistle. They soon dust themselves off, but for a few fleeting moments, they’re just as emotionally invested as they were when this bond was first forged in childhood. Those old threads still hold strong.

Even after the commercial tie-ups and cash-ins, after the Super League splits and Wenger Out rifts, after the metamorphosis from a local club to a global conglomerate, their heart strings still sing for the club across town.

“That will never change,” Morgan says. “Hopefully one day people will feel the same way about Dial Square”.

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