05 December 2014

Shawcross, Ramsey, straw-men or symbols?

Ever since that fateful day in February 2010, the Stoke-Arsenal rivalry has become one of the most fervent fixtures of any Prem season. At the Arsenal end, of course, we have Tottenham and Man U. Stoke have West Brom and Port Vale. Stoke-Arsenal, especially at Britannia, has become a match marked by one horrific tackle, a tackle thas has reduced two men to caricatures of their respective clubs while reducing fans on both sides to foaming-at-the-mouth lunatics. The storyline could come from right out of The Hunger Games.

In it, we're the residents of the lavish Capitol, complete with our effete, urbane fashions, frou-frou foods, and sissified morals. The Potters, then, are denizens of one of the backwater, hardscrabble districts. It plays out an old, old tension between the urban and the rural, made into even more of a parody by the styles each club purportedly plays. On one hand, Arsenal play an aesthetically "pleasing" style consisting of intricate passing and balletic movement, performed by spritely, elvish middies who scamper and flit about the ball. On the other, Stoke play a more-rugged style, involving aggressive tackles and long-balls delivered by oafish lummoxes who are just as happy to run through an opponent as they are to score a goal—maybe even more so.

It's all a bit reductive, isn't it? Sure, Arsenal are famous or infamous for that style, just as Stoke is for theirs. However, each style has become a straw-man for the other side to knock down. Each side now serves as a scapegoat for the other's frustrations. The two individual men involved, conveniently, play their roles. Ours is dapper, dashing even; theirs is gangly and looming. Both then serve as the villain against whom fans can fulminate, venting their deepest frustrations on two who arguably deserve better from their opponent's supporters.

As for each of them, I doubt that they enjoy the role into which they've been thrust. Does Shawcross want to play the role of vicious leg-breaker? No. Does Ramsey savor the role of helpless victim? Again, no. There is more to each man than that, but it's a lot easier for us to rely on caricatures and stereotypes than it is to notice nuance and subtlety. Quicker, too.

However, so intense and so ingrained have the emotions become that it's hard to imagine a future without them. Some kind of catharsis is needed, some kind of emotional purge that will allow fans on either side to remember that this, after all, only a game, and such games were meant to allow culture-clashes to be settled without outright war or bloodshed. As tempting and as emotionally satisfying as it may feel to continue to nurse that bloodlust, wishing ill on certain players, segments of fans, even entire towns, that strips us all of a little something that separates from our more-primitive forebears whether we reside in Stoke or London. At some point, we'll have to realize that it is just a game, and the villainy we ascribe to our perceived enemies exists largely in our own fevered imaginations.

Having said all of this, I hope you don't mistake me for some kind of namby-pamby who hopes that the two squads will form a circle and sing "Give Peace a Chance." I want to see the Gunners score and score often, pummeling the Potters into submission. Again, none of this comes from hatred of Stoke or of Shawcross. It's not personal. It's just business, and I hope we take care of ours on Saturday.

That, however, is probably a bridge too far to cross. So intense and so ingrained have the emotions become that it's hard to imagine a future without it. Some kind of catharsis is needed, some kind of emotional purge that will allow fans on either side to remember that this, after all, only a game. As tempting and as emotionally satisfying as it may feel to continue to nurse that bloodlust, wishing harm on certain players, segments of fans, even entire towns, that strips us all of a little something that separates from our more-primitive forebears whether we reside in Stoke or London. At some point, we'll have to realize that it is just a game, and the villainy we ascribe to our perceived enemies exists largely in our own fevered imaginations.

Having said all of this, I hope you don't mistake me for some kind of namby-pamby. I hope we pummel the Potters with goal after goal after goal. Again, none of this comes from hatred of Stoke or of Shawcross. It's just business, and I hope we take care of ours on Saturday.