“You alright? How you doing mate? Busy morning, man, busy morning.” When I let Don Robbie into my Zoom call the other day, arguably the most famous English football fan there is, he greeted me with that typical smile. Arsenal had lost to Wolves the night before, so this high-spiritedness would normally come as a surprise. But I was quickly assured that, with Robbie’s naturally infectious charisma rubbing off from the outset, the interview ahead would be a rather good chat.
If you don’t know who Robbie Lyle is, you probably should. Robbie defines himself as “a sports guy”, but he is better known as the founder and host of AFTV, an Arsenal fan Youtube channel that boasts over 1.3 million subscribers and a total of over 1 billion views. On the channel, Robbie has interviewed a range of people, from ex-manager Unai Emery, to Piers Morgan, and Mia Khalifa. Robbie Lyle, along with his channel AFTV, has pioneered a new age in football fandom. It is an age in which social media platforms give some substance to fans’ voices, for better or for worse.
At the heart of his love for the game, of course, is Arsenal. I asked Robbie what his first memory is in following Arsenal: “The first thing I remember is walking into Highbury with my cousin, and just thinking- ‘wow!’. I was hooked. I loved this. I loved the atmosphere, I loved the ground, I loved the place. Just everything about it. That was it- Arsenal fan, for life.”
He goes on and tells me that the Invincibles era was the pinnacle of his time following Arsenal. As he reminisces about those glory days, a time of pride for the Arsenal fan, he then sighs: “I just miss seeing that quality of players.”
Those days came long before the creation of AFTV in 2013. Arsenal went on a trophy-less run that ended in 2014, when they won the FA Cup against Hull. It was a timely moment for a channel like AFTV to surface and grow, just as many fans of one of the biggest clubs in the country were beginning to get fed up with their owner Stan Kroenke’s administration of the club, as well as with Arsène Wenger’s management. I asked Robbie to define AFTV: “AFTV is set up to give ordinary fans of Arsenal a chance to have a say on the club that they love. That was the aim of it. Let them have their say, and let them have their say where they’re actually hurt- that’s what we do.”
It was a time of hurt for many Arsenal fans, who were so used to success, supporting the “third most successful club in this country”, as Robbie boasted. In the period leading up to Wenger’s resignation in 2018, regular fan contributors to AFTV, such as Troopz, DT and Claude, were desperately calling for Wenger to leave. Many of AFTV’s videos went viral on the internet, and so the channel quickly gained traction across the footballing world. Speaking on the success of AFTV, Robbie says: “Because we are such a big platform, a fan can come on and he can have his say about things around the club or have his say around performances, good or bad, and people would hear it.”
Robbie is not sure about how much of an impact the channel itself has, as “it’s really hard to gage”, but Robbie is certain that AFTV has given a powerful platform for Arsenal fans to at least express themselves. “I’d say that normally what you hear reflected on AFTV is what’s been reflected in general around the fanbase,” he evaluates.
“We allow criticism, and as long as it’s balanced and done in the right way, I have no problem with it.” Robbie responds to my question on how AFTV deals with damning disapproval of the channel from other Arsenal supporters. Those AFTV-loathing supporters are often more “traditional”, as Robbie puts it. It is not unusual for fans to publicly voice their criticism of the club, often in derogatory terms. However, many football fans see AFTV to be an echo chamber for opinions that do not generally represent the views of the club’s fanbase. And in being so public, some may believe that AFTV run the risk of creating entertainment out of negativity and glamourising the pessimistic opinions of some of the club’s fans.
When I mentioned the videos of Arsenal fans singing “get out of our club” to AFTV at football games, Robbie answered, “They’re entitled to their opinion. It’s a very small minority. I was at the game, some of it was probably directed at me. It was probably about 20 guys, who then probably got the chant going to about 30 or 40 people. So, as I said, we just got one billion [cumulative] views on Youtube alone. That doesn’t count all our other platforms. What do I go with? One billion? Or forty to fifty people?” Robbie adds, “I don’t really think that somebody should be coming to a game when they’ve got such an agenda, when they’re not looking at the team playing on the pitch. They’re more focussed about singing a song about me. Sing a song about the club! Get behind the club! Say it after the game when the game is finished.”
The criticism directed at AFTV goes beyond just the fanbase. When making an appearance at the Oxford Union two years ago, Arsenal full-back Héctor Bellerín questioned whether it was right for AFTV’s success to be “fed off a failure”. Simon Jordan, a TalkSport host, as well as ex-footballers and TV pundits Micah Richards and Gary Neville, have been other outspoken critics of AFTV; Gary Neville went the channel himself and offered his personal opinions to Robbie and other Arsenal fans in face-to-face interview.
AFTV has survived the incoming tides of criticism, as Robbie explains to me: “I have no problem with Gary Neville. I’ve spoken to Micah Richards since what he said. You’ve got to be able to take criticism. I really sort of wonder sometimes when people say to me sometimes ‘are you hurt that this journalist said this about you?’. I’m like ‘no’. As long as it’s fair criticism, I’m cool with it.”
The ethos of AFTV is democratic. AFTV is about giving fans a chance to speak and the opportunity to be listened to, which otherwise may not be so easily done in modern football when you take into account the closed nature of club ownership. According to Robbie, if AFTV is able to freely criticise others, they should be able to take on criticism themselves.
AFTV is part of a wider system in our world, according to Robbie. He tells me: “We are in a new era: this is the era of social media. Even if we don’t exist, there will still be people on various social media accounts talking about the same things we’re talking about. We are just a very big account, I guess you could say.”
Robbie breaks out laughing in our interview when I ask him what his opinion on social media is: “I look on social media and think it’s a great thing – obviously, I would! You wouldn’t be talking to me today if there were no social media. It’s given me a chance to build what I have, and it’s given many people a chance to have a say.
“You get a minority of people who use it for the wrong reasons: to racially abuse players, to abuse players personally… it’s not just players. I could show you loads of abuse that I get. You know, probably worse than what a lot of the players get.”
Instances of online abuse in football have spiked in the last few years. Some of those targeted for vile online abuse include Karen Carney, Reece James and Marcus Rashford, to name but a few. In recent times, it has become a topical point of discussion, with players currently “taking the knee” before every Premier League fixture in order to raise greater awareness and drive racism out the game.
“I want to see real change. Social media companies have to do more,” Robbie tells me. “I don’t think that at the moment they do near enough. I do not understand how you get people- and I see them, even abusing me- just repeat offences. And they just do it over and over and over again. [Twitter] banned Donald Trump! They must be able to ban some of these idiots that are abusing people, you know? Ban their whole IP Address. Those are the sorts of things that need to happen. They need to come down on these things hard. We’ve got to take this thing seriously. I just don’t feel it’s taken seriously.”
Naturally, Robbie spends a lot of his time online, but perhaps now so more than ever under current lockdown restrictions. Just as much as Robbie misses going to the football ground, millions around the country miss actually playing football. His son, he tells me, is one of those people: “He plays grassroots football. He loves football. I take him like three or four times a week to various training and games. Since lockdown, he’s not played a game. They send through things for us to do, little home training. You go out in the back garden and it’s full of mud because of the horrible weather we’ve been having. Basically you’ve got loads of kids and loads of academies, whether it be from my son’s age and lower right up to like 18 year old kids [and] they’re not playing any football at the moment. And I really fear for them. That’s the part of football we sometimes don’t see. It’s going to take time to build back. There will be clubs that will survive but they’re going to trim right back, and that’s going to have a negative effect on the kids and the youngsters.”
Maybe the chances of England winning the World Cup in 2034 have been slightly lowered as a result of this pandemic, but so it has for other countries. With talks of a European Super League and re-formatting of tournaments, the future of football looks to be bleak for the average football fan. “I get very disheartened when I hear all this talk about super leagues.” There was particular emphasis on those last two words. He shook his head twice.
As I began to ask him what will happen when fans are allowed back in the stadiums in a post-pandemic world, Robbie put his hands together, as if praying for that time to come soon. He is hopeful that the pandemic could be a “turning point” in how fans are treated by their respective clubs. He explains to me: “You watch it on TV, and they’re having to get the noise that they use on FIFA games to replicate that of fans, because otherwise you just wouldn’t watch it. Fans are so important to football. Look at the businesses around football grounds that have suffered- pubs, bars, restaurants- because there’s no football fans around. If that is not a wake up call for all the businesses, the authorities, the football owners to say that ‘you know what, football fans are so important’, then I don’t know what is. I’m hoping that they finally see those fans coming back in, that they treat them not just like a customer or to make money.
“I hope they say: ‘You know what, we love these guys. These guys support clubs through thick and thin, they come in and show their support. Yes, of course we have to make money, but we are not going to have ridiculous football prices. If we’re a TV company, we’re not gonna move the game at the last minute so that the fans afterwards can’t get back home on a train.’ I hope that this is a turning point. I hope!”
He adds: “Everybody who knows things about habits, knows that when habits are broken, you may not always return back to that habit. There might be fans who say: ‘In this last year of the pandemic, I’ve kind of enjoyed spending a bit of time with my family. I’ve taken up another passtime. I’ll still watch my club, but you know what I’m going to do when the game comes back? I’m going to go and watch Arsenal once a month.’ That could happen. So, it might be that when fans start to come back, the clubs have got to earn them back. When they’ve got to earn them back, that’s when they look after them better.”
AFTV’s online growth now means Robbie is a recognisable figure among lovers of the game. His opinion on football has gained value, perhaps greater than that of professional TV pundits. In fact, Robbie hosted three series of Channel 4’s The Real Football Fan Show. AFTV has let the common people talk, and it has made people listen. Robbie might be the first ever football-fan-celebrity.
When reflecting on his new identity, Robbie says “It’s been crazy. Cause you know, before I did this, I was working as a surveyor, and then you start this thing up. You start to see a few people know who you are. Now, it has got to the point where I can’t go anywhere. I can’t go into a shop. It’s mad. I embrace it. I have a laugh with a lot of fans from other clubs, and I enjoy it.
“I think, you know what, we talk so much about the negatives. But the positives far outweigh the negatives.” When thinking about what he enjoys about football exactly, he says “The banter around football, the tribalism- I absolutely love it. I adore it. People who are different races, people who speak differently, talk differently, who are complete opposites sometimes- they come together to watch their team play. There’s no better thing than football for me. I absolutely adore it.” At this point, he pauses for a while. He smiles for the last time: “As well as a massive Arsenal fan, I’m a football fan.”
Image courtesy of AFTV