The abuse was so vicious, delivered with such poisonous bile and withering spite even the hacks in the press box were taken aback. The player on the receiving end was, after all, on the same side. Yet the Arsenal fans only paused from berating Theo Walcott to demand Arsène Wenger to "get him off".
The home support was enraged after Arsenal went two goals down to Tottenham and the talented but infuriatingly inconsistent Walcott was the scapegoat. And he knew it. Midway though the half he broke clear, there was only Brad Friedel to beat, and the voice in Walcott's head bellowed, "miss this and they'll crucify you". Walcott slowed, waited for Robin van Persie to catch up, then squared the ball to him despite still being better placed himself. The chance went begging and the abuse resumed.
An hour later Walcott was the hero, given a standing ovation after scoring twice in a 5-2 victory. The same people who had been deriding him as useless and worse now trilled their love for him. He was no longer "Walcott", he was "Theo" again. As he waved back one wondered what he really thought.
This is not a diatribe against Arsenal fans. Though the atmosphere at the Emirates has grown noticeably less tolerant during these fallow years. Similar scenes occur at most clubs. There have always been fans who turn on their own players. I can recall being part of a crowd jeering Gillingham's Danny Westwood who responded with a brilliant solo goal before running to the fans and making clear via hand signals what he thought of them.
What has changed is the degree of hostility. Top-flight players now command such obscene wages, and fans pay such extortionate prices to finance this, there is a belief that buying a ticket entitles the fan to say whatever he wants, and the players' income makes them fair game.
It is understandable, but counter-productive. While footballers generally possess impressive mental strength – they would not make the grade otherwise – it is an insecure profession and confidence can be fragile. Hard to gain, easy to lose, confidence is a vital part of a player's armoury, especially at Arsenal whose style requires the team plays freely.
Walcott is a bright, articulate player who carries huge expectation on his slender shoulders. He may not have progressed as hoped so far but is still young, still learning his trade. Abusing him will not help his progress. Thus for a neutral it was heart-warming to see him show the strength of character to shut his mind to the boos and, when sent clear in the second period, cap an absorbing and thrilling match by converting successive chances with aplomb. The smile of relief he displayed after despatching the first said everything about the pressure he felt as he shaped to shoot, and the joy he experienced when the ball swept past Friedel and rippled the net.
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