9. maj 2022

UK: JAMES McNICHOLAS – ARSENAL THROUGH TWO LENSES

As the ‘red sheep” in his family, British actor and journalist, James McNicholas has since his childhood been proud to be one of the most nerdy Arsenal fans among friends and acquaintances on the internet. During Arsenal Denmark’s trip to London, we met up with James aka Gunnerblog to talk about becoming a Gooner, his view on the current team and the fine balance between being a fan and covering your favorite club as a journalist at the same time. 

By Alex Munk Hjort and Mads Adam Wegener

James McNicholas has been an Arsenal-fan almost all his of his life. Even though he was born in to a family of Chelsea-supporters and living only 100 meters away from Vicarage Road, his loyalty has always belonged to the red and white of North London. And it all began in a sports shop where his father took him and his brother to get what initially should have been their first Chelsea-shirt:

“This was my near miss moment. I told my dad I didn’t want the blue shirt. I wanted the red one with the canon on the chest – I insisted. I really liked the color and the design,” James tells us.

While the brothers were already quite competitive towards each other, football suddenly created an extra dimension for James and his brother in their internal sibling rivalry. So when they started playing FIFA together, James would play as Arsenal and his brother Chelsea. The rivalry became more passioned because they followed different teams. Today they are both season ticket holders at their respective clubs.

“I was the red sheep of the family,” James says with a big smile on his face.

Don’t meet your heroes unless…

A couple of years went by before supporting Arsenal evolved into real fanship for James. There are a lot of ways to fall in love with a football club. In James’’ case, it was a striker with an infectious smile and a lot of goals to his name:

“When I was eight or nine years old, I fell in love with Ian Wright. Naturally, a fantastic player and a massive goal scorer, but I really loved his energy, charisma, and personality. He was a star! He really pulled me in,” he tells us.

It is said that you shouldn’t meet you heroes, but maybe Ian Wright is the exception which proves the rule. James has met his idol on a couple of occasions and it doesn’t change the way he views him today:

“He is everything you hope he’s going to be. He’s so warm and positive. The first time I met him he knew my name. To this day I’m still amazed by the fact that Ian Wright knows my name. When I got married, I put a picture of me and my wife up on my Instagram and Ian Wright wrote congratulations. That alone was worth getting married for,” James laughs and adds:

“I have nothing but good things to say about Ian Wright. He’s maybe the biggest ambassador for the club, who doesn’t work for Arsenal. He is a big promoter of everything around the club: The men’s team, the women’s team, and the academy. I think it helps to form a culture and fan culture around the club. We are lucky to have a person like him associated with Arsenal.”

Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

After falling in love with Ian Wright, it didn’t take long before the young lad visited Highbury for the first time:

“I really love that stadium. I felt like I belonged there in a crowd of people I didn’t know. So, I started going to games by myself. Listening to the songs, looking at the people there. I was happy being there and when Arsene Wenger came, I just fell in love even more,” James remembers.

The very same ‘monsieur’ Wenger was a man, James in some way could see himself in. He wasn’t athletic as a child, but when he saw that an intellectual, lanky Frenchman with glasses was able to survive in the world of football, he felt like there was room for him too:

“I’ve met Arsene Wenger, but I don’t know him. Still, he might be one of the most influential figures in my life. If I were to have dinner with one person, it would be him. When I grew up, he controlled everything at Arsenal. When I was 18 years old, we became ‘Invincible’. That really cemented it all,” he explains and adds:

“I remember watching that team with Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp and thinking: Remember this, because it’s not going to last forever. It was a privilege experiencing that team.”      

Standing at the podium of the internet

As a young and perhaps a bit nerdy Arsenal-fan, James quickly found another community around

Arsenal when the internet started to find its way through to peoples everyday life. He specially started to get a great relationship with a guy named Andrew Managan who a few years before had founded web media called Arseblog, which today has become one of the biggest fan driven Arsenal-sites on the internet.

Andrew decided to take James under his wings and gladly shared all of his knowledge and experience around taking care of your very own spot on the internet. James was all ears and started slowly to gain ground on his own blog with his creative nickname, GilbertoSilver – an ode to Arsenal former Brazilian midfield maestro, Gilberto Silva.

“It was my property, I could say whatever I wanted, that was very liberating. It felt very natural. I didn´t make any money out of it for the first 10 years probably. It was just something I enjoyed. I never thought it would lead to doing it more professionally really.”

However, coins soon started to rattle in James’ pocket when Bleacher Report in 2011 discovered the talent of the well-speaking Arsenal-fan and gave James a job, he couldn´t say no to. James was going be their Arsenal-reporter with having to write five articles a week. In exchange, he got the opportunity to have a permanent seat in the press box at the Emirates, having to watch his favorite team while at the same time earning money for doing it.

Now, Arsenal wasn’t only James’ hobby, but also his job. Challenges however still presented themselves, some more strange than others. One of them still plagues him to this day.

“To be honest, the writing there was not my favourite during my career so far. They would come to you sometimes with a headline and be like, ‘you need to write this article’. And there is one of these kind of articles that people still write to me about. When Arsenal signed Granit Xhaka, they wanted me to write an article about why Arsenal were right to sign Granit Xhaka instead of Ngolo Kante. And I had to make this case. So I was like, ‘Okay, Arsenal are replacing Mikel Arteta, and he is a good tactical fit’ I kind of went through the logic of it.”

“But of course it was wrong. So there is still a lot of people writing to me about it on Twitter. That was kind of the problem, because I didn´t have a great deal of editorial control. They were very driven by numbers and what would get a reaction. I enjoyed working there, but I was not always proud of my writing there.”

Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

James’ career in journalism then took another great leap in 2019, when The Athletic got into with him about the role as one of their journalists covering Arsenal. The offer from the ambitious sports media from the US was almost to good to be true in James’ view. Still, James had his concerns:

As you know I have another life as an actor and comedian and so I was like, ‘I dont want stop doing that’. But when the Athletic approached them, I told them this. In fact, I asked them to pay me less money, because then I am not going to feel so bad, if I say that I´m going off to do some filming work for two weeks. They told me that I was crazy, but okay. They really wanted me.

Pulling in the right and wrong strings

As a familiar figure in and around the Highbury and Islington area, James has benefited from the many other Arsenal connoisseurs, he has met along the way. The phone book is replete with interesting names who have put him in touch with everything from people in and around the club to the many foreign football agents and business people in the big world of football. And good contacts are paramount for James, especially when it comes to bringing transfer news:

“It is genuinely fascinating. i think most transfer stories that you read, the source behind most of them will be an agent. At the Athletic you need two have at least two sources for every story. It is good for agents to let people know that their client has raised interest from Arsenal, but sometimes it is not always true. If you need two sources, okay maybe one might be the agent, one might be internally in the club, or the other club who is selling, where you might need to talk to a player. Even then, once you have the story, it is good practice to go to the club and say. ‘For your information, tomorrow we´re running this story’. We know it is true, because we have our sourcing, but do you have any comments or clarification?’”

At James’ workplace, The Athletic, they have a particularly good track record in breaking transfer news and therefore also being good at passing stories on  from their sources. From time to time however, James has also found himself on the wrong end of a transfer story. Therefore, it is also important for James to check with Arsenal themselves to make sure whether the rumors they pass on are good enough:

“On one or two occasions where we have done that and they´ve told me, that somebody out there has been lying to me’. And since I have a good relationship with the communications people at Arsenal, I think it is true. For Arsenal it is not helpful for them to have a story out there which is false. They wasn’t tell you that , ‘Yes, we´re interested in this player’, but if they say ‘No comment’, then you kind of know it is probably fine.”

He continues:

“In football, everybody is pushing their own agenda. Every agent is saying “My player is the best”. Every agent is saying “the best clubs want my player”. Every coach is saying “It’s not us, it’s the players”. Every player is saying “It’s not us it’s the coach”. And so, somehow, you have to take all that information and from that synthesize the closest thing to the truth, based on what you’ve been told. Football is an industry based on gossip and I’m sure some people print things or hear things that ultimately isn’t true. Therefore, it is also so interesting that the footballing world is so dependent on relations. Relations is everything. I think football, more than many other types of journalism, is open to manipulation, because it’s so dependent on relationships.”

Fighting the internet trolls

As an Arsenal fan who covers Arsenal as a journalist, you´re prone to peoples opinion about you.

In James´ case, some fans tells him he is too uncritical, acting PR machine for the club and telling lies. Others believe that the club and its people are not treated fairly and with respect. There are plenty of internet trolls in James’ life. In fact, he really just wants to the same as them, namely to see Arsenal win. To the internet trolls and everyone else, however, he would like, for safety’s sake, to draw a thick line under the fact that he is in no way a spokesman for Arsenal:

“That is not true. I have more difficult conversations with the club than good ones, which is okay. That is the job.”, James says and adds to the conversation.

“Most of time I´m ringing Arsenals Communications Director and saying, ‘Heya, I have got this story that you don´t want us to put out and we´re putting it out. Sometimes, they´re frustrated by that. It is not an easy relationship, but I think there is respect. I think Arsenal know that I´m fair and I will always give them their oppurtunity to have their say. And they know that I don´t print bullshit. They know we are very well connected within the club and they respect that.”

James is aware that as an Arsenal fan, he must strike a fine balance between work and his passion. At the same time, however, he believes that fans do not want to read news delivered without the special insight and feeling with the club that fans like himself just have:

“I don´t think that most fans want complete objectivity. I guess that is Athletics philosophy with a journalist at every Premier League-club. It a challenge sometimes to marry that thing of being a fan and a journalist. But I think it is more helpful than not.”

“It is also a question of perspective. I am a fan, but as a fan I have relatively modest expectations. Even though I grew up with the Invincibles I always knew we were going to be a bit lower. So although I´m a fan, I´m a bit different to a lot of fans, I have a different perspective, which is helpful.”

Hitting the jackpot with Arteta?

On the pitch it’s looking better and better. Sitting fourth in the table at the time of writing and showing clear signs of improvement in style of play, the spirits surrounding Arsenal and manager Mikel Arteta has been lifted. It’s taken some time, but it does look like ‘Project Arteta’ is gaining momentum. James McNicholas thinks so as well:

“I think the project is very clear now. Everyone can see it and I think it’s been necessary. Arsenal was in a situation where they had way too much money on the wage bill, they lost the European revenue, the made a lot of shortsighted signings like Shkordan Mustafi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with the hope of forcing the club back to the Champions League,” he explains and continues:

“The summer of 2021 was a big reset point for Arsenal, and I’ve requested that for a long time. I think it was time. Arsenal looks healthier now, but we can’t allow ourselves to get complacent. Many Arsenal fans believe that if the club gets back in the top four, everything is fine, but it’s not going to get easier. There are a lot of teams who’s going to challenge in the future and I’m excited to see how Arsenal are going to define success in the next five to ten years.

Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

James believes the identity of Arsenal Football Club has somewhat changed over the last years. From the years with Arsene Wenger where fourth place became subject to criticism, that fourth place now seems more enticing and desirable. At the same time, the growing group of players from Hale End making the first team has given a new perception of what Arsenal can also be: A talent factory.

“It’s exciting! A young coach who’s developing and is moving the team forward. They are playing good football and scoring beautiful goals. Like in the Fabregas era, there’s now an identity we can unite with. If you are a young player who wants to develop and evolve, where do you go? You want to go to Arsenal because you get to play and become better. I think it’s a strong foundation to have, when you don’t have the money to beat Newcastle or PSG, then you need another strategy and Arsenal are achieving that,” he concludes and adds:

“Honestly, I think Arsenal hit the jackpot last summer. To make six signings and for alle of them to have had positive contributions to the club is rare. There is some luck in that of course. All signings can go wrong, but until now it’s not really happened with this group of players. That’s a noteworthy success and a bit lucky.”

Power

Early in his tenure as Arsenal head coach, Mikel Arteta got promoted to manager and through that position gained more power in the club. The Spaniard has created a togetherness in the club which seems stronger than seen for a long time and the club feeling is back. Likewise, he’s contributed to halving the clubs wage bill in a year. Adding to that are the internal things, the media writes about: Players reporting for training early and eating breakfast together – something Mikel Arteta has encouraged, but not required of the team. And James McNicholas believes that Artetas rise in power is the best thing the club has done in the last couple of years:

“Arsene Wenger always said you should have football people making the decisions. It’s not a business, it’s a team. And I think giving Arteta more power has given him a seat at the table when the big decisions are taken. I think that’s positive. If you believe in your manager, you must empower him. When Unai Emery left, all he talked about was the players he didn’t get. And in the end, it’s the team on the pitch we care most about and the man who’s responsible for that team should have a big influence. I think it means something,” he says and sums it up:

“What I’m really trying to say is: The football people at Arsenal – the manager and the technical director – has more influence on the owners than they’ve had for many years. When Arteta and Edu speak with Josh (Kroenke, red.) I think he listens!”

James does, however,  have doubts, whether Mikel Arteta is the man who gets the project to culminate. But he’s not doubting where the team is going: “Everyone’s excited about this team and this project. The question is: How important is Arteta? Would it work with another manager? I don’t know and Arsenal must answer that question soon because his contract runs out in 2023. Arsenal is stronger, no doubt about that. The most exciting thing about this group is the fact that they should be better next season. Wherever they finish this season, they should be better next season. And it’s been a long time since

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