By Tony Attwood
I read a comment on Untold after last night’s match in which a correspondent said that he had “not renewed my membership to the club” having been watching the club for 50 years. I am not sure what the “membership” is that he has, and since the renewal notices for red, silver and gold memberships haven’t gone out yet I am not too sure of the exact meaning here, but within the comment was the notion that the club had now sunk so low he could no longer give it his financial support.
Being very much an old timer myself, my association with Arsenal goes back even further than 1967, and obviously over that length of time the memory starts to fade a bit. But I do remember the consecutive seasons in the mid 1970s when we just avoided relegation under Bertie Mee, the seven successive defeats during Terry Neil’s reign, and being the lowest scoring team (40 goals in 42 league games) during George Graham’s time at the club – 1992/3 to be precise.
Of course being a fairly positive sort of chap I tend not to dwell on these issues most of the time, but prefer to remember the good times, but yes some of those memories linger, like the run of nine matches in which we scored a grand total of two goals. I am not sure the moaning was at such a level then.
What I find interesting in trying to have such a debate is how quickly the essence of the debate changes; if these points above are brought up and put into its historical perspective then immediately the argument is changed into one which suggests things ought to be better because the cost of football has gone up. But then that applies to every club in the Premier League. Indeed when I started to go to Arsenal entry to the terraces behind the goal at Highbury was the most expensive in the country. And (and I kid you not) when Woolwich Arsenal increased its season ticket prices by 50% during the Boer War there was outrage.
But this season I must also confess to despair; despair at my inability to have reasoned conversations on the issue of what Arsenal should do now in the light of this disappointing season. Quite why removing the manager and replacing him with someone else is the preferred option of some people bemuses me. Yes of course it might work, but all the evidence shows that it is more likely not to work.
Tottenham have been trying it for over 20 years chopping and changing managers very regularly – there have been (I think) ten permanent managers at Tottenham since Mr Wenger joined Arsenal, and during that time the trophy haul at WHL has been somewhat limited in terms of what some Arsenal supporters call trophies. While Chelsea have changed manager and had a great success with it, Man U and Man C have found the journey more problematic. And that’s really my point – even with the super rich clubs which have owners who will pour their personal finance into the club, changing the manager tends not to work, more often than it does work as a way of winning the league.
Of course Mr Wenger will go at some stage, whether it is at the end of this season or in two years time, but looking at the way it has worked in Arsenal’s history, or in terms of other clubs, this in itself is no guarantee of success. Rather the most likely outcome is more of the same or a further decline.
So why do some people want to change the manager? When I have managed to have calm and rational conversations on this matter with people who believe Mr Wenger should leave, we’ve never been able to get beyond the notions that anything would be better than this, which is palpably untrue. I suspect David Moyes would not be better than this, nor Sam Allerdyce, nor indeed Tony Adams – who has just taken over at Granada. Of course someone, somewhere will be able to take over the club and make us champions again, but I don’t know who, and I am not sure anyone else does.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t change manager, of course (I have to keep saying this because people keep writing in and accusing me of wanting Mr Wenger to stay forever). But it does mean that pinning all one’s hopes on a change of manager as a way of taking the club to the top of the league next season or the season after, is not much of a strategy, based as it is on its very minimal success rate elsewhere.
So what else could we do? Well, taking that statement literally, nothing, because supporters can’t do much in relation to a club they support. We can stop renewing our “memberships” of course but there is no certainty even then that the owner would make a decision that would lead to Arsenal being top of the league, or even in the non-trophy zone of the top four. He might appoint David Moyes – just as Man U did.
But even if a top four finish could be guaranteed, as it has been for the past 20 odd years, what then? Well, we have already seen what then. Such a run of finishes, which is better than anything achieved at any previous time in the club’s history (better even than the 1930s), then leads to the “fourth is not a trophy” view. In Spain where two clubs fight out first and second spot most seasons, coming second is not a trophy and the manager goes. In Germany where Bayern have to win the league, not winning the league is not acceptable. The demand for more is eternal.
What I find when I try to have this debate while including some evidence along the way, is that more often than not the conversation descends into abuse. When it doesn’t the one thing that we end up agreeing is that there is no sure fire solution. That supporting a club is about enjoying the moments of great triumph, and being thankful that one had the chance to be there at that moment, while recognising that in a truly competitive league (by which I mean to exclude league such as in Spain, Germany, Greece etc), such triumphs don’t go on forever.
That is the simple reality, as is the fact that changing manager (just like buying high quality players) is not a sure fire solution of anything. Nor is changing the manager a lot (unless like Tottenham you are willing to do it for 50 years or more and still not win the league).
Nor come to that, is changing the owner. I read the interview with Alisher Usmanov in Bloomberg this week, in which Mr Usmanov seems to blame Stan Kroenke rather than Arsene Wenger for the failure to win the league this season. He also suggests Mr Wenger should be involved in choosing his own successor. Which is of course what happened at Man U when Sir Alex Ferguson was involved in changing David Moyes, now manager of Sunderland. I’m not sure about that one.
Mr Usmanov said, “I don’t think the coach alone is to be blamed for what’s happening,” suggesting the board “bear huge responsibility.” Maybe, but if he really did make the point, as the interview report suggests, that the commercial division needs overhauling because our income is 30% less than Man U’s I think he is off-target. A historical perspective is needed here. Arsenal were the first ever club to get into serious football marketing under the leadership of Henry Norris, when he moved the club to Highbury. He developed every strategy in the book that was available at the time, to build on the name of Arsenal and create the 1930s success story. The problem was that the board members that succeeded him thought marketing was a dirty word, and when the successful run came to an end in 1953, there was nothing to prevent the decline of the club. It was soon after that Man U copied Norris’ approach but this time took up on a world wide scale. Arsenal however slipped back.
Mr Usmanov’s single stated strategy since 2012 has been for more investment in the club, but as Man City has shown, although owning 10% of the world’s gas supply can buy you lots of things, it doesn’t automatically buy the trophy. His plan of providing the money so that Mr Wenger could buy the very best players in the world, might have worked. It might well have been fun. But even that combination of Wenger + Usmanov is not a guarantee of success.
Strong leadership from the board could help, and historically when Arsenal have made great leaps forwards that is what has powered it. It happened in 1891/2 when the through the work of men like Jack Humble the club went professional, and saw off the dirty deeds of the faction that eventually split from the club to found the rival (and ultimately doomed) Royal Ordnance Factories FC. It happened from 1910 onwards when Henry Norris took over and started the journey to Highbury and topped it all by bringing in Herbert Chapman in 1925. It happened when David Dein chose Arsene Wenger in 1996.
Great visionaries whose visions work are hard to come by, but just consider those extraordinary moments in the club’s history I’ve just noted. And particularly think of the visionary Henry Norris bringing in the visionary Herbert Chapman. The visionary David Dein brings in the visionary Arsene Wenger. The key in both cases is that one achiever brought in another.
In the end, just changing the manager is never enough.
From the Arsenal History Society
- The crowd at Woolwich Arsenal: Arsenal in the 2nd division 1893/4 to 1903/4
- The Arsenal Handbook 1930: the errors and the consequences