By Tony Attwood
Of late there has been quite a bit of talk about Giampaolo Pozzo taking over Watford FC. Pozzo owns Udinese and Grenada football clubs, and the talk is that Grenada and Watford will then become feeder clubs for Udinese.
Such is the talk anyway – and it is a possibility – clubs just taking on other clubs to become their preparation ground.
Arsenal have in fact done this in the past with Margate. During the inter-war period many first division clubs hit on the idea of taking over non-league sides and running them as “Nurseries”. Perhaps by coincidence or perhaps as a result of some copycat activities, all three of the north London teams in the 1930s had nursery clubs in Kent. Tottenham were linked with Northfleet United, Clapton Orient with Ashford and most famously, Arsenal with Margate.
At this time the school leaving age was 14, but the youngest a man could be signed as a full time pro was 17. This meant that clubs either had to take youngsters onto the groundstaff (something many of the lads didn’t fancy) or risk losing them to other jobs. The nursery club was an ideal arena in which the youngster could train as an amateur while getting “expenses” and have his development monitored while working elsewhere.
Quite why Arsenal chose Margate is not known. It might have been a nod in the direction of Arsenal’s 19th century origins in Kent, although we might note that it was also the place where manager George Allison’s daughter attended a local school.
As Major Sir Samuel Hill-Wood was quoted as saying in the Isle of Thanet Gazette in 1934: “In the past we have suffered very much because we have been unable to take likely boys of eighteen or nineteen found by our scouts. We could not play them. Perhaps unfortunately our second team is at the head of the London Combination year after year, and we dare not experiment with the team. It would only offend players hoping to get their Combination medal. What we wanted was some club willing and good enough to teach our young players for us. We can and do find lots of promising young boys but they must have somewhere to play and be taught.”
Arsenal provided the manager and chief scout for the club and paid 60% of the wages. Margate Town Council meanwhile spent significant funds improving the ground, (undoubtedly seeing the publicity as a way of promoting Margate as a holiday and day trip resort).
However after Ashford played Clapton Orient in the FA Cup in 1934/5 season protests about match fixing were made and the FA banned linked clubs from entering the Cup from 1937 onwards.
This decision caused a major problem for Margate. On the pitch they were a huge success winning almost every competition they entered. They even reached the third round of the FA Cup one year before losing to first division Blackpool. But in terms of league games they always lost money. In fact a good Cup run was Margate’s only hope of financial survival and without it, the club was doomed.
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When the Cup ban came into being the partnership ended and Arsenal entered their own A team in the Southern League, playing at Enfield.
Now it seems to be happening again on a European scale. So what of Arsenal today? It seems we are getting rather close to Lorient.
Gilles Grimandi’s last big deal for Arsenal was Koscielny who moved to Lorient before coming to Arsenal. Koscielny, Campbell, Francis Coquelin and Gilles Sunu all recently at Lorient. I only wander down this line because last year there was talk of Kevin Gameiro of L’orient coming to Arsenal.
Lorient is led by London-based French businessman Loïc Féry and and are managed by Christian Gourcuff. People speak of them as being on the up, and speak about Playing the Lorient way. Which in ideal and often in practice is similar to playing the Arsenal way.
The Brittany-based club are often compared to Arsenal given their style of play, but their approach off the pitch mirrors the Gunners too and recently the club have become a finishing school for Arsenal.
“Despite being in different footballing dimensions both sides share many things,” said Féry. “Both enjoy consistency with managers who have been with the club for over a decade – we share a similar football philosophy and we are amongst the rare clubs that make money in this industry.” (Last year Lorient was the only club in French football with a positive net financial result.)
Lorient have been playing 4-4-2 – based on one-touch attacking football, constant passing and movement to create space whilst observing strict tactical instructions .
Christian Gourcuff, has been involved with the club since the 1980s. “There is an affinity between the two clubs,” he said. “Arsenal looks for the same things Lorient does in their players. Our footballing philosophy led us to share similar styles and playing ethics and our approaches to games and preparation mean we have developed a strong relationship.”
Féry developed this approach. “The star of FC Lorient is the team. I tell our players that we have no Lionel Messi in the changing room, however, when they all give 100% of their ability, we can beat anyone, including Champions League clubs.”
“Arsène contacted me regarding Laurent and showed a great deal of respect to FCL,” said Féry. “He offered to meet me in person and I told him I wanted to loan Francis Coquelin. He accepted this with no guarantee that we would sell Koscielny and now we have agreed a similar deal for Joel Campbell. In the past Lorient have also signed Jérémie Aliadière.
Sadly things are not always perfect on the pitch for Lorient – they finished one place and two points above relegation last season. But they only reached the first division in 1998, mostly being an amateur team before that. It has never won the league. So a prolonged stay in the top league is certainly a step forwards.