By Tony Attwood
If there is one thing that has really influenced – indeed taken over – football in the past five years it is what New Scientist magazine recently called “Trial by Repetition”. The observable fact that if you say something often enough it becomes perceived to be true, irrespective of whether there is any evidence to support the claim or not.
I discovered the power of this myself when working with the Arsenal History Society on the influence of Sir Henry Norris on Arsenal. Slowly as I researched his period as chairman of Arsenal FC I began to realise that most of the “facts” that we “knew” about him were actually completely untrue.
And not just a slight misreading of the events but utterly, totally and completely untrue. Absolute falsehoods in fact.
It then took me another couple of years of research to find out what was going wrong – and having done that it all seemed obvious and easy to explain what happened. Over 20 years after he was sacked by Sir Henry, Leslie Knighton, the man who managed Arsenal before Herbert Chapman, wrote his autobiography. In it he took his revenge on Sir Henry (by then long since passed away, and so utterly unable to answer back). Not because Knighton was a vindictive or nasty man who was by and large an utter failure of a manager (the latter is true, but as to the former I don’t know) but because he was paid good money in his retirement to come up with some juicy “facts” and his protagonist was now long in his grave.
As I read through that autobiography two things became clear. First, the overwhelming majority of what Knighton said about Sir Henry was blatantly false. And I don’t mean in some minor technical way – his tales when checked against the facts which are part of historical record (such as transfers, the achievements of players signed and the like) were palpably not accurate records of history.
Second, it is clear from reading most subsequent commentaries on Arsenal under Sir Henry, (indeed one can say all the subsequent commentaries before the Arsenal History Society came along) that it is the Knighton version of events which is believed, rather than the events as laid down in checkable facts.
In other words, subsequent writers have chosen to believe the unsubstantiated words of a manager who by any measure was a downright failure, in an autobiography written for serialisation in a Sunday newspaper, rather than the facts which anyone could check.
The conclusion is that people can’t be arsed to check and instead believe what they want to believe.
I was moved to come back to this theme by the article in New Scientist mentioned above. New Scientist is a popular but serious scientific journal in the UK, and not one prone to telling wild stories that appear in Sunday newspapers. The article in question (“Trial by repetition”) tells how the UK government has published a document declaring that invasive species (ie plants and animals not previously native to the UK) have been responsible for 40% of the animal extinctions in the UK in the past 400 years.
The source of the figure is Global Biodiversity Outlook published by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity which sounds pretty serious, convincing and correct.
Now this may all seem pretty dry and non-football, but I will come to footy in a moment, I promise.
The 2006 UN report came from a paper from Cornell University the previous year which drew on a paper from 1998 which wasn’t actually talking about the UK, but the threat of (not actual) extinctions in Hawaii.
When complaints were made the UN report was changed – and it upgraded the claim to “more than half of the animal extinctions”. This time it cited a paper from Trends in Ecology and Evolution (a very learned journal and not your light reading after two glasses of red over sunday lunch).
That paper turns out to be four paragraphs long. There are no details of the species considered, and when New Scientist contacted the authors they said the hadn’t kept their notes on which species they considered. An earlier report that says that just 2% of all extinctions were due to species from other territories entering the eco system, was ignored.
Now my point in this long diversion (for the half dozen readers of Untold still with me) is that if this happens with serious scientific studies, UN and government reports on matters of how to sustain our environment, can you imagine how it happens with football?
I’ve written extensively on the AHS site about Henry Norris but quite often get comments back about “what are you doing defending a crook?” without any evidence.
But much more to the point, let me (if I may) take you back to the issue of transfers.
The media has combined with the blogettas to create a view that if a manager does not buy three top players in a transfer window he is not doing his job and should be sacked.
Leaving aside the notion that the normal reason for dismissing a person is that he is not getting the final result (eg a trophy or enough profit for restructuring) rather than what are argued to be one but not the only means for getting the result (buying players), there is the issue of the endless passing of supposition as fact during this last transfer window and thereafter. Such as
- The fact that 99.999% of “done deals” reported in the media were not done at all.
- The fact that 75% of high value transfers don’t result in the player bringing play of the highest quality to his new team.
- The fact that a number of members of the current Arsenal squad who are shown in statistics to be among the most effective players in their position in the league, were brought in as youngsters for little or no or a modest transfer fee or as unknowns, (Coquelin, Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott, Koscielny…)
- The fact that we still bring players through from the under 21s – such as Bellerin – who turn out to be brilliant.
- The fact that clearly most of the rumours in the papers about Arsenal being able to sign player X but failing to do so, are not backed up by a single shred of evidence.
These facts are enough to make anyone with an open mind start to consider the importance of the transfer window.
But no, each report follows another and follows another, with everyone copying and not going back and checking.
A few years ago, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews brought to me the most amazing account of the early days of Woolwich Arsenal FC which we published as Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football. (See the link below at the foot of the article, for more information).
That story had been utterly mistold year after year after year, until our book came out, with every successive author repeating the story previous told about how Arsenal nearly went bust because all the local teams refused to play them once they became a professional club etc etc and no mention about how a splinter group within the club had tried and nearly succeeded in destroying Woolwich Arsenal FC. In fact the opposite to the “wouldn’t play” notion was true – the local clubs were clamouring to play Arsenal, because Arsenal brought the biggest gate of the season.
So it goes on. The untrue tale is repeated ad infinitum because it makes a bigger headline. Our story of Woolwich Arsenal’s origins was significant because it refuted all the previous “facts.” The information we have on Henry Norris likewise knocks out huge amounts about the assumed history of the man. And today we have this wild and whacky idea that the only way to build a team is to buy in the summer transfer window.
The same is true with the endless comment that Arsenal has the most expensive season ticket prices in the world. I have given up pointing out how silly a statement this is, and now simply don’t publish the comments of people who write it. Instead I demand some evidence. I don’t get it.
Mind you, if the scientific community in liaison with the government and UN gets it so wrong, what chance have we got?
But still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
- 6 September 1905: Morris Bates died from TB aged 41. He was the captain when Royal Arsenal won their first two trophies. He played 73 first team games for Royal Arsenal between 1896 and 1890.
- 6 September 1913 First match at Highbury. Arsenal beat Leicester Fosse 2-1 in what was the first opening day victory since 1906. 20,000 present. George Jobey scored the first Arsenal goal at the ground but was later taken off injured. See also George Jobey, The Day it Began and Season Ticket Prices.
The Untold Books