First posted on Cherwell on the 11th February 2021.
“You alright? How you doing mate? Busy morning, man, busy morning.” When I let Don Robbie into my Zoom call the other day, the “fan of the people” greeted me with a smile on his face. Arsenal had lost to Wolves the night before, so this high-spiritedness would normally come as a surprise. But with someone as charismatic as Robbie, I had a feeling that I would not have a difficult interview with him ahead.
If you don’t know about Robbie Lyle, 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 creation of AFTV, marks 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 that love for the game, of course, is Arsenal. I asked Robbie what his first memory is following Arsenal: “First thing I remember is walking into Highbury, walking in 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 self-confidence and sense of real pride for the Arsenal fan, he then reflects: “I just miss seeing that quality of players.”
Those days came long before the creation of AFTV, which was 2013 as Robbie corrects me, after I had assumed it was 2012. Arsenal went on a trophyless 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 from 2013 onwards, 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 Arsene Wenger’s management too. 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 to me in the interview. In the period leading up to Wenger’s resignation in 2018, some fans who were regular 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 will hear it. People will see 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 criticism from other Arsenal supporters, who are often more “traditional”, Robbie thinks. When I mentioned the videos of Arsenal fans singing ‘get out of our club’ to AFTV that spread online to him, 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 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 and they’ve got such an agenda, 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 of AFTV goes beyond the fan base itself. 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’. Especially 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, with the latter even going on the channel and offering his personal opinions to Robbie and other Arsenal fans face-to-face. AFTV has nevertheless 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?’ and I’m like ‘no’. As long as it’s fair criticism, I’m cool with it.”
The ethos of AFTV is incredibly democratic, it seems. It is about giving fans a chance to speak, who would not have otherwise been allowed to before. If AFTV is allowed to criticise others, they have got to be prepared to face others’ criticism. After all, they are opinions people are “entitled” to have. 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 laughs in our interview when he offers his opinion on social media: “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.” However, he also sees the dangers it brings on a day-to-day basis. “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 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 been a main point of discussion, with players currently “taking the knee” before every Premier League fixture. “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 offenders. 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 misses going to the football ground in this current lockdown. 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. 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,” emphasising those last two words while shaking his head. 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, they treat them not just like a customer or to make money, but they also 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 ‘you know what, 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- and 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. AFTV has let people talk, and made people listen. Robbie also hosted three series of Channel 4’s The Real Football Fan Show. Effectively, Robbie is probably the first ever football-fan-celebrity, excluding others like The True Geordie, who produces other content outside of football. When reflecting on his new identity, Robbie says “It’s been crazy.” He continues, “Cause you know, before I did this I was working as a surveyor, and you start this thing up. And then you start to see a few people know who you are, and then now to where I can’t go anywhere and nobody doesn’t recognise me. 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 you know what, the positives far outweigh the negatives.” When thinking about what he enjoys about football, 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- 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 and smiles for a small while. “As well as I’m a massive Arsenal fan, I’m a football fan.”
Image courtesy of AFTV