Robbie Lyle, aka Don Robbie, the founder of Arsenal Fan TV, has become an online viral sensation and a meme of his own.
But how did someone go from taking a camera outside the Emirates Stadium interviewing disgruntled Arsenal fans for AFTV to getting 1.083 billion YouTube views and 1.5 million subscribers?
We sat down and spoke to the 49-year-old who cut a tired figure. It’s no surprise if you have any clue about Arsenal football club.
“It’s a difficult time to be a fan. And it’s all consuming, I live and breathe Arsenal so when there’s a horrible game like the other week,” referring to the 2-0 loss to Brentford in the opening game of the season, “That’s with me for the entire week.”
It seemed to lighten his mood to change the focus from football to his upbringing.
With parents from North West London, Robbie grew up in Luton. After school he moved to Ladbroke Grove to work for the civil service in the Department of Health and Social Security.
After realising that wasn’t for him, he became a property surveyor, pursuing a music career on the side.
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The MC – stage name Crucial Robbie – toured the UK and even Europe with his brother, getting so popular that he released a track called ‘Proud to be Black’.
It rocketed to number one in the British reggae charts and launched Robbie as a local celebrity.
He continued as an MC for four years but as the music started to die down, he retrained and worked as a surveyor, however the “entrepreneur side” of Robbie was telling him he had to do his own thing.
“I was a lifelong Arsenal fan and used to go to Highbury every week. My loves growing up were music and Arsenal,” he said.
He started to think that he’d really love to do something with the fans at Arsenal to give them the opportunity to have their say on the club. That’s when the lightbulb moment happened.
With no knowledge of social media or filming, he teamed up with a friend, borrowed a camera and microphone and rocked up at the Emirates one day in October 2012. It took off from there.
Almost straight away people were responding to it. What now would feel like nothing were huge results for Robbie at the time, pulling in hundreds of views.
People kept telling him it was never going to work and that they’d never get more than 1,000 subscribers but Robbie saw the potential and persisted with it alongside his work as a surveyor.
“They were very, very long days,” Robbie explained. “I would go to midweek games some days in places like Newcastle or Burnley, get back at 6am then have to be ready for work at 7am.
“I had a lot of meetings during my working days, I can’t tell you how many I fell asleep in,” he joked.
On the first game of the season against Aston Villa in 2013, much like the Brentford result, Arsenal got thumped – noticing a theme here any non-football fans?
Every interview Robbie hosted that day went viral. AFTV went from being an outlet only Arsenal fans really knew about to being in all the newspapers and splashed across social media.
He said: “That day took us to another level. I was just excited by it all, my thing has always been to be consistent and make quality content.
“To see those reactions that video got, even though it was off the back of a loss, was amazing. People were now really taking notice of what we were doing in a big way.”
Three and a half years into AFTV, Robbie took the “leap of faith” quitting his day job.
“I had a decision, if I never left my job AFTV would have stayed at the same level,” he said.
“It required me to leave my job and take that risk and give it 100 per cent. It wasn’t guaranteed money but I thought I’d take that chance.”
During lockdown Robbie decided to take another leap of faith and move AFTV into a swanky new studio in Islington, a 10 minute walk from the stadium.
Robbie said: “People told me I was mad for spending so much money during the lockdown, but I thought we had to go for it to expand.
“It’s been brilliant since moving here because we can film so much more. It’s like a factory churning out content, but real quality content.”
There is now a team of 15 staff including presenters, videographers and editors all on Robbie’s payroll.
I asked him the golden question that everyone wants to know – how much does he earn from it? But as usual, he was extremely coy about it. Articles online suggest he has an estimated net worth of £1 million, but he refused to disclose.
What he did say was everything he makes is reinvested into the channel.
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He added: “I don’t have a mansion or all this stuff that gets written about me, although I do have a few nice things. I didn’t have loans or anything because I used to have terrible credit, so this is all off my own back. This is about the long game.
“It’s not about earning a million quid and popping ten bottles of champagne. There’s more to it than that.”
As a result of his graft, Robbie has gone from being a local celebrity to a national, and even international celebrity.
He said: “That’s been the biggest shock to the system. There’s nowhere I can go without getting recognised now. If I go to any, and I mean any, football game I will get absolutely mobbed.
“If I walk on the street everyone recognises me. When I go abroad I’m always shocked by how many people know who I am. And it’s not just Arsenal fans, it’s all supporters.
“I’m sure to many that would be annoying but I like it, these are the people that follow and have made me who I am.
“When people see me and talk to me or take a picture with me I feel obliged to do that because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today doing something I really love.”
He added: “It does take me a little longer to get to my seat at a game, but I’m cool with that.”
Of course, the bigger you get the more critics you get.
“That’s just how it works,” admits Robbie. “When you start off small you’re that plucky guy that everybody loves but the bigger you get the more people will turn on you.”
Online trolls, football pundits and even Arsenal players – most notably Hector Bellerin – have said the channel capitalises off Arsenal’s poor results so aren’t real fans.
Robbie’s response was: “I just want to see you perform on the pitch. Just like we’ve got a right to criticise him on the pitch, he’s got a right to criticise what we do.
“Although I didn’t like him referring to us as hustlers because we’re not, this is a proper business and we want to see our club do the best.”
As for the criticism from others, he said: “Sometimes it’s helpful because we’re doing something that’s never been done before and we need to learn from our mistakes.
“We’ve changed the game and we continue to innovate and I’m not scared of criticism. There are a lot of trolls but you can never please them, they want us to pack up but that’s never going to happen.”
As for what’s next for Robbie and AFTV, he left us with: “We can’t drop our standards and we’ve got to keep improving and if we don’t, we’ll end up like Arsenal. We’ll become mediocre.”
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