Thursday 10 December and everyone else is probably talking about last night’s brilliant performance by the under 10s in Greece. So, what with this being UNTOLD ARSENAL and all, I thought I would attack the issue from another angle.
The headline above was a question raised by a writer in our correspondence column, and I thought it worth a proper full reply.
I also want to be 100% fair here. The writer actually said,
1) Why are you so pro wenger and
2) Why the seemingly blind support for project youth.
I chopped that a bit for the headline, because headlines can get a bit out of control on some sites if they are too long.
So why am I so pro-Wenger (and by implication, why have a site that is totally pro-Wenger?)
I’ve watched Arsenal since my father took me to Highbury in 1957. We lived in Tottenham and at that time (as possibly now) the streets of the area were mixed between Arsenal and Tottenham supporters. Being an Arsenal family in Tottenham was not the slightest bit unusual.
Having watched the team over many years, and had a season ticket in the two George Graham championship years, I know that what I have witnessed in the past 500 games is not just better than anything before, it is light years ahead of everything we had before.
Two things arise from this introductory point. First, my late father was watching Arsenal when Chapman was there, and he told me stories of the 1930s, the Golden Age before my generation.
All I got was to stand through all those years without a trophy (17 years was it – I can’t be bothered to look it up) and wondered what it was like to win something, or to be taken seriously by the media.
Second, when Wenger arrived he was utterly unknown, and not thought to be of any use. We had had a terrible year under Rioch. I know opinion is divided here but to me everything felt wrong with the club at the time. The back four were solid, and Bergkamp was starting to shine, but there was no flair. Ian Wright was playing on the wing and asked for a transfer, and we scraped into the UEFA Cup on the last day of the season.
After the success of the Graham era it was fairly awful.
When Wenger was announced Tony Adams said, “what does he know about English football? He’s French,” and that was the attitude of the day. English football is different from the rest of football, and you can only know it by being English.
This self-centred vision was central to English football at the time, and we still come across it today (“you won’t win the league without a spine of English players”). England (the national team) use to bring in a big strong centre forward because the story was that funny foreigners couldn’t stand having a big Englishman running at them.
So I was there, in the North Bank with my dear mate Roger, (the guy to whom “Making the Arsenal” is dedicated), watching our most successful manager ever (Pat Rice, who took over while Wenger was still in Japan, and ended his tenure of four or five games unbeaten), and onto the pitch came Patrick Vieira. My mouth fell open, and I said to Roger, “look at that Vieira – he’s just taken over the whole centre of the pitch. He’s running the whole game…”
Now I should point out, as Roger often did, that my ability to pick good players at first sight is limited. My comments about Henry not being any good as a centre forward during his second match for us came back to haunt me again, and again, and again, and again…
But the fact is that from the start Wenger was a revolution. On the pitch it was utterly wonderful, and we began to see a totally different approach to football. And then we started winning stuff. Not just stuff we had won before, but impossible stuff too, like going a whole season unbeaten, like 49 unbeaten…
It is easy to forget but an unbeaten season was considered impossible. All the history books commented on Preston’s achievement in the 1888/9 season but pointed out they only had 22 games to play, and only two competitions to play in. Wenger gave us the impossible, and played the greatest ever football.
So emotionally I had, some years after my father’s demise, entered his world. And football is about nothing if it is not about emotion.
But there was more to come, because Wenger was obviously instrumental in taking us to the Emirates, and at the same time he took world-wide scouting to another level.
We started seeing players that no one had ever heard of, and who two or three years later were players who had come on so far that had we wanted to buy them, we couldn’t have afforded them. Patrick Vieira cost £3.5 million – and two years later was worth… well, make up a number.
Then along came Chelsea, and Manchester United were taken over, and I realised we had entered an insane world. I remember writing several articles at the time (long before I started this blog) saying, there are three models for big clubs…
a) Chelsea’s approach – find a rich backer. The dangers are he might leave, he might turn out to be a crook (cf Manchester City’s first attempt) he might not have the money after all (Portsmouth) he might get bored, he might get arrested, he might get shot…
b) Manchester United’s approach. The danger here is that this only works if there is another buyer at the end of the tunnel. If there isn’t the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down. I expressed my doubts about there being enough people who wanted to buy into this game, for this sort of money. The notion put forward that growth is based on growing marketing just doesn’t add up to me.
c) Arsenal’s approach based on world-wide scouting for the very best talent – both the relatively unknown mature player (Freddie to Vermaelen) and the youngster with possibilities (Ramsey, Cesc, Theo). What I also hoped and what we eventually got was that young players could come together in our youngest teams and push their way up through – and that is what we have seen in the last two years. The double winning youth team of last year mostly came together aged 11.
Now my point was, and remains, that these are the only three models that can possibly work to generate a successful club at the moment. The problem with a) is it is all dependent on one person’s fantasy world. The problem with b) is that it is a huge gamble on finding another buyer at the right time. The problem with c) is that you might not get victories all the time.
But c) gives us other benefits – a club that will survive no matter what. If Wenger left tomorrow, and we got a manager only half as good, we would survive, because our debt is manageable.
This stability is what I admire, and it is not there in the other models.
Liverpool have severe troubles because they have tried model b) and run out of money. Manchester City are proving that model a) does not automatically work.
And – and this is my biggest point – I don’t know anyone else who is “doing an Arsenal”. I have heard of several chairmen say that this is what they will do, but they haven’t, because they haven’t understood the nuances.
Doing an Arsenal, means having the scouts in place. It means having Gilles Grimandi touring France every day, until he finds Clichy. It means having someone in Spain who can find Merida and Fabregas. It means having a man in Mexico to watch Vela who is not only on the spot but who also knows what he is looking at – spotting talent before others.
So our model of bringing through youngsters might not bring us trophies each year, but I am certain that within five years Manchester United and Liverpool will have slipped down the rankings. Not as far as Leeds perhaps, but down out of the top four on a regular basis. Liverpool’s demise could well have started.
I think that we are on the edge of a new golden age – because of our financial model and our youth policy, and that is all down to Wenger.
In short we get glorious football, some league wins, a club with managed finances, and a sustainable future with a new stadium, and no worries that the owners might run out of cash or bugger off. Not a bad deal.
(c) Tony Attwood 2009
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