‘We have to move with the times’: AFTV’s Robbie Lyle speaks to Palatinate

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Anyone familiar with online football content is familiar with Arsenal Fan TV. And if you’ve seen Arsenal Fan TV, you’ve seen Robbie Lyle. After coming up to give a talk at the Union, ‘Don Robbie’ sat down with Palatinate to discuss everything from chart-topping hits to black Basque discrimination.

“I’ve been to Durham twice now. I didn’t realise it was that long ago but I came up in 2019 and gave a talk then and I came here last year when we were playing Newcastle and a mate of mine said I should come for dinner, so yeah, I like it. It’s a lovely setting.”

At the mention of last Sunday’s North London derby, Robbie can’t help by crack a smile. The prospect of a first league title in two decades is exciting to any Arsenal fan, and few live in the club’s emotions as much as AFTV’s founder.

“I mean listen, the problem we have at the moment is that it’s not in our hands any more – it’s in Manchester City’s hands and their record of not dropping points is unreal. But I feel it’s about putting the pressure on and staying in the fight and if you look at the last couple of games Arsenal have had, it doesn’t get much tougher than that. You’re up against two London derbies, won the North London derby. Two teams [Chelsea and Tottenham] that you know are just desperate to stop Arsenal from winning the league just from a perspective of personal pride. Those were really really tough games and I thought the way we won both of those was brilliant.”

If you look at the last couple of games Arsenal have had, it doesn’t get much tougher than that

“I was just disappointed in the North London derby on Saturday about the way we gave them a couple of goals because we were cruising in that as well. That shows you that this team is different from last year. They’ve grown and matured a lot and if there are any slip-ups from City we can capitalise.”

City may be in the driving seat for the title race, but with the Manchester club yet to travel to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Lyle is hoping Arsenal’s old rivals can get a result. For once.

“Yeah, I will be [supporting Spurs against City]. I won’t go as far as putting any scarves on but I will definitely be supporting them. Listen, I’ll be supporting any team that’s playing Man City at the moment so for once in my life I want Tottenham to win or even draw. Just for City to drop points somewhere.”

Lyle has been ever-present in the AFTV setup since its foundation in 2012, when he quit his job as a surveyor in pursuit of creating the first large-scale fan broadcasting service with his cameraman. By starting his professional career as a reggae artist and subsequently moving into a role as a radio host, he believes his broadcasting background gave him the skills to get AFTV on the ground.

“Yeah they have. First of all I was a reggae artist. I used to perform and make records back in the day. I had a tune that went to number one in the UK reggae charts and I used to perform a lot so I guess that’s where I get maybe my bravery of being able to speak to people. Then after that I worked on a local BBC radio called BBC radio Bedfordshire and I used to do a reggae show on there which was really really popular.”

“I did it for a long time. It was only once a week but that show was popular so I think that’s where I developed a lot of my interviewing skills, because I used to interview artists. You’re speaking to people via phone-ins as well, so I think I developed a lot of my interviewing skills there, which I was then able to carry through when I started doing AFTV.”

I had a tune that went to number one in the UK reggae charts and I used to perform a lot so I guess that’s where I get maybe my bravery of being able to speak to people

At nearly 1.5 million subscribers and over 1 billion views, AFTV has been a monumental success, pioneering the fan broadcasting bubble and paving the way for content creators across all clubs to share their opinions.

“I’m very proud with what I’ve created. When you first set out on your journey and you start something you’re not really thinking about where it’s going to take you. Even things like I was doing last night – coming up and giving talks to students at such a prestigious place as Durham, I was not even thinking about those things when I started the channel. I was thinking I was just going to make a football channel for Arsenal fans to have their say. So I’m immensely proud of what I’ve done and how I’ve changed the industry.”

“As for where it’s going to go, I’ve got big plans. We’ve got a worldwide audience so I want to do more stuff abroad, taking it to people in various countries. We’ve done a few of those already this year, but I want us to literally be like a broadcaster, which I think we are already. We reach out to as many fans as possible but it’s not just AFTV. There’s DR Sports. I’ve got a company called GFN Network now, and I’m bringing in loads of different fan channels and people who make content together, to make lots of content around football. I just think when it’s done that way, it’s so engaging. I see the future as more and more content online and we’ll see where it takes us.

“We do a show called ‘Best of Enemies’ with [Tottenham fan creator] Expressions on DR Sports, my other channel. It’s a really popular show. What we try to do on that channel in particular is do football with lots and lots of rivalry, but without spite. Do it in a fun way, because football doesn’t have to be a war; it should be fun.”

Unfortunately, many football fans appear disagree with this sentiment. Much has been said about racist and homophobic behaviour from fans over the last decade, and Lyle himself has been at the centre of the debate. His 2020 documentary with ITV, ‘Robbie Lyle: Football Fans Under Their Skin’ drew back the veil on his experiences as a black football fan and wider racism within football. Palatinate asked Lyle whether he felt adequate anti-racism steps had been taken by footballing authorities since the release of that documentary.

“No. Not really, no. When I did that documentary, what I tried to do was show people what it used to be like back in the day, when I first started going to football in the late 80s and 90s. It was horrendous. There was open racism and loads of hooliganism. It was terrible.”

Football doesn’t have to be a war; it should be fun

“Football has improved so much since then but it’s still here – it still exists, and I still don’t feel that the steps that could be taken to completely get rid of it have been taken. You still see it, often abroad, where players a racially abused openly in games and the club is fined or play a game behind closed doors. And we can see that doesn’t work, because they come back a couple of weeks later and do it again.”

“I was reading yesterday about Athletic Bilbao’s Nico Williams against Atletico Madrid. Atletico have been done for this before and yet he was racially abused throughout the game. That’s why, when he scored the goal, he ran off to the Atletico fans and was indicating his colour. Listen, Nico Williams was born in Spain. Yes, his parents are Ghanaian, but he represents Spain, and yet he’s still getting abused by fans. That just goes to show not enough is being done to get it out the game.”

“I think it’s very simple what needs to be done. When you get repeat offenders, you throw them out of the league. I always think that when you take things seriously, the consequences are serious. So, when there was the prospect of the Super League, look at the action UEFA were going to take since it put the Champions League under threat. They were saying to players, who remember are contracted to their teams, if you participate in that Super League, you will never play for your country again. You’re going to get a ban.”

“It had nothing to do with the players, but they were willing to ban players from representing their national teams for life. They also told clubs they would be banned from playing in their league if they entered the Super League. Look at that. Look at those extreme measures they were willing to take when there’s a threat like that. But when it comes to racism, you get a thirty grand fine and a game played behind closed doors. That shows you UEFA and the Premier League are not serious.”

“They’re very very serious about the Super League, but if they were really serious about combatting racism, then repeat offences should mean you’re out of the league or you’re not going to qualify for the Champions League. I’ve been to games in Europe where fans have been racially abusing players. Why should they be in the Champions League, when they’re holding up anti-discrimination banners but they’re not serious about it.”

Those guys who are racist wear it like a badge. Until it’s taken very seriously, it’s always going to exist in football

“If an institution has a policy about discrimination and I walks through their door spouting homophobic stuff, they would ban me for life. They wouldn’t turn around and say that you can’t come back for a week. You’re out. That’s it. That’s them taking it seriously. Why aren’t we doing that in football? What’s with it being behind close doors. Those guys who are racist wear it like a badge. Until it’s taken very seriously, it’s always going to exist in football and I don’t think the Premier League, La Liga, FIFA etc don’t take it as seriously as they should.”

It is clear to see that money is the primary motivator for organisations to instigate action against players and clubs. With the idea of introducing a spending cap on Premier League teams being floated for the first time this week, has the influx of money irreparably damaged football culture?

“It depends on many things – how’s the money used and how it affects the integrity and the way fans are treated. There’s nothing wrong with money in the game; it means were get to see better players and have better stadiums. We get better experiences. As long as the money doesn’t take over the running of games. Even simple things like the timing of games at ridiculous hours when fans have gone to the game and can’t even get home afterwards because there are no trains. There needs to be a balance. There’s nothing wrong with money, as it means we get to see the best players in the world playing in the Premier League, which I love, but there has to be a balance. It’s going to be an ongoing issue.”

“Next year in the Champions League they’re increasing the amount of games they’re playing and a lot of that is to do with money and appeasing the big clubs who threatened to make the Super League. That’s where you see money affecting the game but sometimes we have to remember that we have to move with the times. Football is not the same as it was 30 years ago. It’s different now. It’s worldwide. I’m lucky to have been around the world with football but you do realise that when you go to other countries they’re really really into the Premier League – they love it. So, how do you have it so that as well as looking after the people in the UK you also look after those people. So there’s a balance again.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the money really, as long as the fans have been consulted and it’s been explained to them rather than imposed upon them, like they did with the Super League. That’s when it’s done in complete secret. All these clubs agreed to that league when there’s no relegation and the fans went mad. If they’d consulted fans beforehand, we would never have agreed to no relegation but we might have found a better outcome.”

What a stupid question, of course I want to interview Thierry Henry

Lyle’s own businesses of DR Sports and AFTV have facilitated his propulsion into the public eye. Whilst fame doesn’t seem to faze him, he admits there are a few times he’s been starstruck at people he has had the opportunity to meet.

“I was starstruck interviewing Thierry Henry for sure. He’s my favourite player of all time. When I first interviewed him I went to an event and I wasn’t even supposed to interview him. He was there in a room upstairs from me. It was in the Shard, and one of the organisers of the event asked me if I wanted to interview Thierry Henry. I thought, ‘what a stupid question, of course I want to interview Thierry Henry’. He said he was upstairs so I was thinking what I was going to ask him – he’s my all-time hero, you know?”

“I went up into the room to interview him but he didn’t know I was coming to interview him. I walked through the door and he said ‘Oh Robbie, I love AFTV.’ At that, I nearly fell over – I was completely starstruck. Interviewing him for the first time was fantastic. Ian Wright was another one of my heroes and he said he loved AFTV, so I was completely starstruck with him too. It’s happened a few times.”

Fans of Arsenal and the wider football community will be well aware of the number of viral clips AFTV have generated. Of all the angry rants and iconic excuses shared, Lyle’s favourite remains one posted in the infancy of the channel.

“My favourite clip is probably the first video that went viral for us from a guy called Chris Hudson where he had a bit of a rant after a defeat we had against Aston Villa way back when we started the channel. I love that video; it just feels so authentic and I remember that day he was so on point with how everybody felt. I still look back on that video and it’s just an iconic video for me. There have been so many incredible videos for me but that was my favourite.”

And with that, it was time to go.

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