By Tony Attwood
This summer’s transfer window resulted in a few Arsenal “fans” calling for Mr Wenger to be replaced, on the basis that only one major signing was made, and Arsenal only won one of their first three games.
The contrary argument that no club has won more games in 2015 than Arsenal in the Premier League, or that we were cup winners two years running, was heard less.
Which has led me to write a few little pieces transfers and why they are seen to be important. If you are bored with all this, then don’t worry, I am getting close to the end of my thesis, and also I’m going on holiday in October, so there’s not much more to come. Just a couple more I suspect.
Thus I noted in passing that Under half the clubs have fans satisfied with transfer window – and that the fans of the larger clubs were the most likely to be disappointed. It is not just an Arsenal thing.
But also noted in another piece that the number of players who were transferred to clubs but then don’t deliver in the way that the clubs and their supporters might wish was much higher than we might imagine. Only around a quarter hit the ground running and really made a difference straight away.
Subsequently we printed out the list of big cost players who had not delivered, and discussed why – which was not just because they were over rated but because of being targeted by other players, failing to settle in the new country, etc etc.
Others took up the theme, and a few days after our story about flops we saw the headline: It’s official – Manchester United have wasted more money on transfers than any Premier League side since 2013
Which in turn led me to do a piece which aimed to poke fun at the whole notion that transfers are the most significant part of a club’s activity, and that you can judge anything much after four games: Does the amount a team costs reflect its position in the league?
So why all this excitement about transfers if in reality they don’t meant that much in terms of football success? Are we, the fans, causing it, because of our fixation with transfers? And if so why now. It never used to be like this.
I’ve been writing a series of articles on Arsenal’s pre-seasons on the Arsenal History Society blog, looking at the transfers etc before each season started, and it is clear that we never used to think in this way. We never used to expect multiple buys every summer.
So, trying to think my way through this whole transfer hysteria, I have started to reach a conclusion. That the excitement about transfers is being caused by a different factor from the ones we normally think about.
I suspect football has become a battle ground between two sides of the media: broadcast media and the press. The fight is over something that might seem rather esoteric: how we perceive football. And one outcome is the endless vision that transfers are everything.
My view is that perception is important; our interpretation of the world is what counts. Watch coverage of football in the 1950s and what you have are jolly amusing working class people with their funny ways and funny talk, who might, if you gave them a chance be able to say four words to the camera and wave a rattle. Educated people went horse racing or watched the rugby (usually pronounced “wugga”). That of course was untrue, but that was how it was painted in the media, so that is what people were led to believe.
Of course the media’s portrayal of those funny folk at football, had nothing to do with reality. My goodness announced the TV cameras, “there is an old woman at the game too”. She was probably toothless and they called her “ma”. Ho ho.
But of course this had nothing to do with the real experience of being at a football match – it was a perception created by the media.
Now this notion that the media creates the perception of events is not new. Perhaps the most influential and original attempt to suggest that the way the world as painted by the media is not the way the world is came from Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971 with illustrations by the magnificent Ralph Steadman.
“Fear and Loathing” is a great title, because that was how many came to see football in the 1980s. But while Thompson and Steadman through their various works showed us that events portrayed as the wonderful heartland of the nation were exactly the opposite (as in, for example, The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved which appeared in Scanlan’s Monthly) in England ordinary events that were not decadent and depraved became transformed into horror shows by the media.
As a result by the 1980s the perception of football was of a place where men got very drunk and where battles were fought. Worse some of these men wore sharp suits and travelled by train! Players fought on the pitch, fans invaded the pitch, fans fought on the pitch, fans fought in the streets, fans fought at the railway stations, fans fought the police, fans fought each other, and… actually I was there and it wasn’t like this at all. To say football had an image problem was to put it so mildly the comment was actually turned into a joke as big as the false reality painted by the media itself.
And so what was rarely said was that the perception presented by the media had nothing to do with reality. The disgusting and disgraceful facilities inside many grounds were never mentioned, the treating of fans as animals to be herded and corralled, the lack of safety concerns and total disdain with which we were treated by those who organised, controlled and wrote about football, was not mentioned. And yet these were a major cause of difficulties. If you treat people like animals for long enough they start to behave like animals. I think we learned that long ago.
Of course, just as not every person at the Kentucky Derby was drunk and fornicating, so not every football experience was utterly appalling, but it was wasn’t that good, and eventually it got bad enough that people took notice. Hillsborough, the Bradford fire, Liverpool fans attacking their rivals at the European Cup Final… the government pulled the clubs out of Europe (before Uefa banned British clubs) and started to impose all-seater stadia.
In such an atmosphere few organisations wanted to be associated with football, but few noted that two of those three giant tragedies were caused by the people who run football, not the fans. And although nothing could ever excuse the behaviour of Liverpool fans at Heysel Stadium, the fact is that it was a wholly inappropriate place to hold the match. In a properly built and maintained stadium an outbreak of violence would have been far less likely and could have been easily contained if it happened. But by then it was all too late. The media told us that fans behaved badly, the conditions were disgraceful, we were treated like animals, so people behaved badly.
Those most awful events were appalling beyond measure, and because someone up there liked me, thankfully I was at none of them. My worst experiences were Arsenal games against Tottenham and Man U, and the sub-human facilities at grounds like Luton Town that I wouldn’t have let my cat experience. We were more likely to get cholera than be beaten up on away games.
So football then was sanitised, and on the plus side, some clubs stopped treating fans like vermin and actually started to realise that the fans deserved better facilities. Perceptions changed.
And then along came Sky, and with Sky came the notion of presenting a package that was edited and sanitised. No crowd trouble shown, interviews with fans carefully edited to make everyone happy and chirpy, football officially became a jolly good experience with awfully nice people involved. The burgers sold outside the ground could still give you botulism but the rest of the experience was ok.
The trouble is, once the media starts changing reality to suit its own agenda, it is hard to go back to the real world. It was always part of the earlier media deal that the police and the clubs were never ever to blame for creating crowd problems. After that it was one little step to writing into the broadcast contracts that crowd disturbances would never be shown, or even mentioned. Even one tubby and slightly inebriated gentleman from Coventry running on the Emirates in a cup match was covered by the camera pointing at players doing nothing while the commentators desperately said, “let’s have another look at that Arsenal goal.” Slowly the reality of the football ground became removed from what was shown on TV.
Power moved. When football was just highlights shown at night, the editors and presenters decided if a match was exciting and worth fifteen minutes of viewing time or “trench warfare” as the Everton/Arsenal game in the first Double season was called, and therefore hardly worth a look.
But there is a twist, for with the growing power of live TV and the internet, the press found themselves marginalised, and what the last few years have seen is the press start to evolve their own vision of football. A vision that is quite different from that of TV. Now we have two media versions of football – both quite different from anything you will experience if you go to a game.
TV’s manipulation of reality has got totally out of control. They tell us what the rule book says about incidents (and invariably get it wrong), they have an absolute rule themselves to give referees an easy time, they never to mention the oddities of PGMO, they cut all time wasting scenes and instead show players trotting back to the half way line, or replays of earlier incidents, and they employ people whose sole job it is to decide what is a debating point or not, and they still cut out all crowd reaction that they don’t like. They openly tell us that “the fans” are mistaken or misguided, they determine what can be talked about. They define football.
So with the rise of the internet and live TV the newspapers must have felt for a moment they were done for. But powerful men own newspapers and so over time they evolved a cunning idea.
Because TV just focusses primarily on the live games, the press came up with the notion of creating another reality surrounding football matters; a reality that they could cover all day every day, their key issue that they could play with – and which didn’t cost them a single penny.
They picked on transfers. “But transfers are important,” some would say, “I want to read about transfers” but I think that is a misconception brought on by the press. The cohesion of the team, a balanced team, the fact that many purchased players don’t turn out to be nearly as good as the press built them up to be… these issues suggest that buying players is just a minor part of the game. Look at newspapers from the end of the last century and there is no “transfer gossip”.
Second they removed the concept of the whole season or part of the season. A team is only as good as its last match. Arsenal won the FA Cup two seasons running, but lost at home to West Ham? Arsenal are rubbish because of the performance against WHU. Thus we need the papers to talk about now, now, now.
Third they evolved a system that allows them to talk about transfers before during and after the transfer window, by making up stories about who is going to be transferred. Stories which are over 99.9% originated by non-existent people writing in invented foreign newspapers about players who wouldn’t fit in anyway.
So they build up a crisis (such as Arsenal’s inability to score goals last season, because shock horror Arsenal scored two goals fewer than Chelsea).
Then they invent players who would have no impact on solving that crisis if it actually existed, which it doesn’t, and on the back of an invented crisis, invented possible transfers, and players who would not solve the crisis anyway, show that the club is badly run.
Hence they invent the notion that instead of purchasing being an occasional issue it should be at the forefront of our minds all the time. The Rumour Mill was born.
My point here, and in all these articles in this series, is that this is all bollocks, to use the technical phrase. We are being sold a pup. Transfers are not nearly as important as the media makes out, in the overall context of football. Of course we can all cite transfers that have worked, but many many more are best forgotten. Developing young players, tactics, the team shape, having backups for when injuries occur, dealing with referees, knowing what to expect from the opposition… all these things are much more important than transfers.
But day by day by day by day we are told it is the transfer that is everything.
This evening (Thursday) I am giving a brief chat about the recent work of the AISA Arsenal History Society at the AISA (Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association) AGM. If you are going, and you feel like it, do say hello. Whether you agree with my ramblings or not, it is nice to know someone is reading.
Two anniversaries from today’s list
10 September 1930: In the days leading up to this date a clock with a 45 minute face was installed at the Laundry End of Highbury. No record exists of the exact date, but the Daily Mirror published a picture with the clock on this date.
10 September 1988: Tottenham 2 Arsenal 3. The “surreal free for all” as all five goals came in 12 minutes in the first half.