By Tony Attwood
As we all know Mr Wenger has kept us in the Champions League every year. Arsenal (from 1998–99 to 2016–17) have participated in 19 consecutive campaigns which is second only to Real Mad. In essence we have been in the top four for 19 years, our lowest position by definition is of course fourth.
In the ten years before Mr Wenger 1987/8 to 1996/7 we were in the top four, six times and our lowest position was 12th.
In the ten years before that (1977/8 to 1986/7) we were in the top four, four times. Our lowest position was 10th.
In the ten years before that (1967/8 to 1976/7) we were in the top four twice. Our lowest positions were 16th and 17th and relegation in both of those seasons was for a while a real possibility.
I don’t want to go on doing this chart forever but for anyone who has not bothered to study their Arsenal history between 1953/4 and 1967/68 we were in the top four once in 15 years. Our lowest positions were 13th and 14th.
If you reverse all this there is a real progression here from being a club that could get into the top very rarely, up to a club that could do it half the time, to a club that did it all the time. In fact it is rather smooth – twice in ten years, four time in the next ten, six times in the next ten, then all the time in the next 19.
Now of course top four is not a trophy, but there is something to be said for progression, not least because clubs that leap up suddenly to win things, also have a habit of falling down very quickly too.
Of course to a number of the people who say they support Arsenal, none of this means anything at all, because they don’t have any interest in context. And that’s fair enough – that’s their choice, and there are many newspapers, broadcasters and blogs, as we have seen in the past week, that have not the slightest interest in context either.
But as I say, that is a choice – you can take an interest in the historical perspective, and the events moving around you, or not, as you wish. My interest has always been in context, which is why I not only publish this blog but also the AISA Arsenal History Society blog. Some say, “history is bunk I just want us to win the league.” It’s a bit like a child in a pram throwing out the toy, but that seems to be the level of much debate these days.
However the AHS blog is currently publishing week by week what I believe is the first complete and detailed history of Arsenal in the 1930s, reviewing each game, and all the players involved. We’re currently nearing the end of the project although there’s going to be a lot of going back and updating the articles, as more information has come to hand as the project has continued.
But I mention this because there’s context in that period too. During the period from 1929/1930 to 1938/1939, Arsenal won the FA Cup twice and the League five times – the club’s greatest period. Before the FA Cup final of 1930 Arsenal had won nothing. It took Herbert Chapman five seasons to move the club from a no-trophy club to winning its first major trophy, during which time he offered to resign, because he had failed to get a trophy sooner. Sir Henry Norris told him to get back to work. He knew context when he saw it – we’d he’d paid off all the clubs debts in 1910 the club was on the edge of extinction.
Now you might expect that, looking back to that period, the supporters of the era would be deliriously happy at a club moving from no trophies in 34 seasons in the league (four missing of course because of the first world war) to one that won seven trophies in ten seasons. But in fact this was the era of the “boo-boys” – the ancestral version of the aaa. They started out by jeering Jack Lambert (the club’s top scorer for three seasons running, and a notoriously nervous player), and basically ended his career at Arsenal. Then they gathered real momentum from the defeat to Walsall in the FA Cup when Arsenal put out a reserve team and lost in circumstances that would of course not be allowed today (spectators on the touch line, that sort of thing).
Matters got worse and worse until eventually the players spoke out against the crowd, and Arsenal’s sheer success turned against the club. Even winning the league was not enough, and there was criticism of the final league win which came right at the very, very end of the season. Arsenal had won the league, but it was a close thing. It wasn’t good enough. Under Chapman we would have won it with six games to spare.
And this is where context comes back. When Arsenal beat Liverpool on the last match of the season to win the league at Anfield there was joy a plenty because it was the first league title in 18 years. Some of us who were season ticket holders then were starting to think that we might never ever see a league trophy again. So it was all wonderful – not only because we had won, nor because of 18 years, but because of the fact that during those 18 years we hadn’t even come close save for a second place just once in 1973.
In the 1930s as now, there was an expectation that we should be, as a correspondent so amusingly put it recently, challenging to win the title every season, at least up to the last three weeks. As if somehow Arsenal has a right to this. But there are half a dozen clubs with the same ambition, and as I showed in a recent review of the Premier League era, this sort of close finish is rare. Unless the Premier League turns into a league similar to that in Germany or Spain, or indeed Greece, where the same club or two clubs wins almost all the time, it isn’t going to happen.
Arsenal are not the richest club in the league – we are the fourth richest club in the league, and therefore to think that we can have regular championships as of right is nonsense. If we can hold the club and its players together (which in the current febrile atmosphere seems utterly unlikely) then the progress that we have seen since the 1960s which takes us to the position of regular top four finishes, will be continued. But the total revolutionary upheaval that the media is pushing for, will more than likely see a period in the doldrums, as has happened to Man U.
What will happen, I don’t know. As I saw in an article in a piece in the Telegraph, it was noted that, “Before they met in the Champions League on Tuesday night, it was PSG manager Unai Emery who looked doomed but their shock thrashing of Luis Enrique’s side meant there is now almost certain to be a vacancy at the Nou Camp this summer.”
One game changes it all, which is interestingly, because Barcelona tend to have a perspective on just how difficult it is to get success in a league with half a dozen strong clubs in it, and probably because they recognise two FA Cups and a runners’ up spot as quite a significant achievement in the last three years.
As the Telegraph says of Mr Wenger, “Barca have tried to poach him before and [Mr Wenger] may be unable to resist finding out whether his footballing philosophy dovetails as perfectly with their own as many have previously suggested.”
They go on to say that there are of course many other clubs that would welcome him (AC Milan and Inter being two that are particularly noted).
As Mr Wenger said, “If you look at the history of Arsenal, Arsenal had less Champions League games when I arrived than I had in my career already, and since then we have done a few, so I hope in the future we can win this trophy, or Arsenal can win this trophy.
“But it is not like I arrived Arsenal had already won the European Cup five times – they had never won the European Cup.
“They played maybe 10 games [in that competition] in the history of the club, so you have to take into perspective some demands.”
As for Barcelona, well suddenly the British media has less to say about them and their fall from grace – despite having sponsorship incomes that are more in a month than Arsenal get in a year. And despite being in a two team league (in which they are second, and Real Mad have two games in hand.)
I wonder why so little fuss is being made about Barce’s 4-0 defeat.
The rest of the teams in this league are closer to relegation than winning the league, so I’ve left them out. It’s that sort of league.
Arsenal History Books on Kindle
The novel “Making the Arsenal” by Tony Attwood which describes the events of 1910, which created the modern Arsenal FC, is now available for the first time on Kindle. Full details are here.
Also available on Kindle, “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” the only comprehensive history of the rise of Arsenal as a league club, and the attempts to destroy the club, from within and without. For full details please see here.