One of the benefits of being a membership of AISA is the handful of events they organize each year. This one was really interesting, a chance to meet Alan Smith and the renowned sports journalist, Patrick Barclay and be entertained by Tom Watt (ex Eastenders’ ‘Lofty’ and full time Arsenal fan).
The event took place in Great Portland Street, downstairs in an office building. I arrived early having been working at the British Library just up the road so was able to get a seat nearish the front. It was pretty busy but the impressive array of free cakes meant the mood was good, and the punters happy. Ostensibly Paddy was there to promote his biography of Herbert Chapman but actually he talked little about Chapman and instead we had an excellent Q&A led by Tom.
Tom started us off with the story of his day; he was in a tiptop mood because in the morning he had interviewed Mesut Özil (who he described as a ‘top bloke’) and then was commissioned to write 1,500 words on the subject of ‘what has gone wrong at Manchester United?’ Nice work if you can get it eh?
Some of the evening was about reminiscing – especially when Smudger was asked questions about his career. Did he really get a touch at Anfield in ’89 (yes, of course he did), did he intend his goal against Parma (no, he just reacted quickly). Famously he was only booked once, the in the 1993 cup final for ‘ungentlemanly conduct’ – he kicked the ball the away – and he has the letter the FA sent him (all players get one) framed on his wall. Smith didn’t get booked because he’s a nice bloke, was never in the ref’s face and hardly ever tackled (by his own admission) and Barclay compared him to Gilberto who made loads of fouls but smiled his way through games, and so rarely went into the official’s notebook.
Both guests agreed Arsenal could win the league this season but that March was probably going to be the deciding factor. If we are still top or in the mix at the beginning of April, who knows? Transfers weren’t really discussed but Smith didn’t see much happening while Barclay said we should sign Seamus Coleman from Everton (in the summer) as he is the perfect replacement for Sagna.
On the subject of transfers they discussed Arsenal’s future which both think it is bright. The signing of Özil was crucial Barclay argued, now we can sign other top players. We tried to sign Benezema in the summer but now we could get him, because players like that will want to play alongside the German magician. We also have the funds and signing a £40m player every year is not a pipedream. This is a real vindication of le Boss and the board – they are doing what they said they would do.
But the squad is deeper than some would think and it is young. Barclay noted that only the BFG, Arteta and Sagna are ageing, the rest are still to reach their peak. In Wilshere we have a ready-made replacement for Arteta (and Barclay wishes we would play him deep not as an attacking midfielder). He also reckons Per could play till he is 40 (‘after all he has no pace to lose!’), so overall the best is yet to come from this team. We can compete with the oilers if FFP is enforced.
By contrast they both saw the Mancs as having trouble if they fail to finish in the CL places. Neither reckoned they would win the Champions League (Bayern and Barca are too good – although Smudge fancies Citeh to beat them) and so are staring a nightmare scenario in the face. Barclay told us that in consequence of missing out on the CL United would have to pay 25% more in transfers (wages in particular) to attract players in the summer. Arsenal however, will find it easier to bring stars in. I suppose this again puts Arsenal’s achievements (of a top four finish in consistent seasons) into perspective for those 5,6, 7, 8, 9 years without a trophy moaners. By staying in touch we stay able to compete.
There was an interesting discussion about George Graham. Smith reckoned he hasn’t been given the credit he deserves for turning the club’s fortune’s around. We were ‘in a mess’ was the verdict of the panel and GG changed all that. George improved standards, made everyone wear blazers (even once on a trip to Oz and on the beach!) and reminded the players of who they were and who they represented. He was an Arsenal man, as they say.
Towards the end GG lost it and that was when the allegations of bungs was hanging over him. On that Barclay was asked whether, given the close links between George and Sir Alex Ferguson, there was any suggestion that others could have been charged or investigated by the FA? Paddy tried to dodge this one, to much laughter. He did say that if the net had caught SAF ‘it would have been a wonderful thing’!
Interestingly Barclay then argued that football is more corrupt now, but that corruption has been made legal. If agents were not conducting transfers seats at arsenal would be £5-10 cheaper, for example. Too much of our money is being taken out of the game to fill greedy pockets. But his final aside on the issue of bungs was to say that SAF’s sensitivity to the BBC as regards the matter of his son tells us all we need to know. Interestingly both men agreed that the current loan system was seriously flawed, you shouldn’t be able to loan between clubs in the same league.
I asked a question about referees – have standards fallen and are there too few of them to choose from? They didn’t answer this head on but agreed refs were getting lots of things wrong and that this was worse than it had been. Barclay agreed with me that this might have something to do with the pace of the game and said we need to give the 4th official (otherwise a waste of space in his view) a TV (‘a telly’ he said) and allow him to properly help the ref. We don’t need goal line technology if we have a telly, you can see Lampard’s goal was in or that Tiote’s goal (against Citeh) should have stood.
Smith complained it would slow down games but Barclay disagreed; take the incident last season when Rooney elbowed James McCarthy at Wigan. Paddy gave a very amusing description of Clattenberg dancing backwoods to waste 5 minutes talking to his linesman only to then make the wrong decision. The 4th official could have radioed the ref and told him to send the United player off – saving several minutes of game time and reaching the right verdict. I must say, I’m with Paddy on this one; bring in TV and expose cheating players and corrupt referees.
Finally, one last point from early in the event. Barclay was asked about Herbert Chapman and Arsene Wenger and how they would get on. They would be kindred spirits Paddy said and told us of how, when he had heard Wenger was being appointed, he rang him up at Nagoya. Wenger was kind enough to talk to him (and this seems to be reflected in Barclay’s positive attitude towards le Boss, something not all journalists have) and he asked Wenger what he knew about Chapman. Arsene then trotted off the great man’s achievements, he clearly knew who HC was and therefore what taking over at The Arsenal meant. Like Chapman, like Graham, and so many others, Arsene Wenger is an ‘Arsenal man’.
The Q&A lasted for about an hour and a half, it was enlightening and the two men stayed behind to chat individually to AISA members and to sign autographs and Paddy’s book. I spoke to Smith afterwards about a charity that matters to me and he listened and shook my hand. I went home buzzing, almost like a win at the Ems. If you fancy being a part of events like this then join AISA and join in.
Footnote: Untold has its copy of the new Barclay book on Chapman and we’ll be reviewing it anon.
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