By Tony Attwood
All clubs have style. It is reflected in the way the players are encouraged to present themselves, the way the club reveres its past, the way the club considers its fans, even the way the club considers the people who live in houses round about.
In such an analysis there are some clubs that have all the style of a post-war barrow-boy (the black market retailers who worked London streets in the aftermath of the second world war) or an East End gangster associated with the Krays.
And there are some that seem to have a feeling for their supporters and an understanding of what the club is about.
For small town teams it is a bit easier, because they can have a nice local feeling around their poorly supported clubs – my local team Corby Town won the Southern League Premier Division this year (meaning promotion to the Conference North) and they organised a First XI vs Supporters match yesterday to celebrate. A nice touch. Today is the open top bus ride – and why not. Corby Town FC don’t get many chances to celebrate.
It is harder for the bigger clubs to get it right, because of the disparate and worldwide nature of their support, but when I see what Arsenal in the Community does I do feel the club is at least making a positive effort.
And indeed when we sing the “49” song, and comment on “playing football the Arsenal way” I go along with that. There is an Arsenal way. We lost it for quite a while but it was there in the 1930s and it has been with us all the way through the Wenger years.
Mr Wenger himself can get annoyed at times, especially on the touch line, but most of the while he conducts himself with admiral restraint when facing the journalists who have pilloried him and taunted him and ceaselessly misrepresented him from the moment of his arrival in the UK. Now at the press conferences he sits there, answers each lunatic question politely, smirks at the men he has so solidly outwitted from day one, and moves on.
At the other end of the scale there is the story told in “Men in White Suits” by Simon Hughes of the 1996 Man U squad who turned out in white suits. I don’t know if it embarrassed their supporters but it certainly gave most of us a laugh.
Man U’s style and “way” problems are enormous. Of course at Arsenal we have people who shout unacceptable things, but our club has worked hard to get rid of anti-semitic chanting, and has done this well in my opinion. It hasn’t gone totally, but it is much less than it used to be.
But Old Trafford failed utterly to counter the appalling chants and songs aimed at Arsene Wenger since he first came here. At one time they were even promoting a CD which contained the song – although ultimately they did remove it from their web site. But action of the concerted type that Arsenal has mounted to stop unacceptable chanting and singing, is unknown at Old Trafford. I am sure there is a Man U way in terms of quality and decency of human existence, but it has different values from those I hold dear.
There is a Man U way in terms of winning, of course. All those championships testifies to that, but in terms of human decency, it just has values different from mine.
But what the Hughes book focuses on mostly is Liverpool, which over the last 25 years is seen as a “car crash in slow motion”. His focus much of the time is with the “strategic errors” of each new managerial regime – errors which it is always interesting to see are excused by some Liverpool fans who write to Untold via the suggestion that we have no right to comment on anything Liverpudlian because we haven’t won the European Cup; an interesting way of viewing discussion, democracy and freedom of speech.
But the underlying point is that the game has changed – “modernised” in Hughes’ terms, and Liverpool have not quite modernised with it. His view is that until Liverpool do modernise, and indeed sort out who and what they are, they won’t climb back to the top.
Souness, Dalglish, Evans, Houllier all seemed to find it hard to find the Liverpool way, and then the desperate hope that Tom Hicks and George Gillett could inject the money and put it all right, and then more talk off and on of the mysterious and ill-defined “Liverpool Way”.
The “Arsenal Way,” I suppose, means putting style above the pragmatism of winning – the sort of thing Arsene Wenger is so often criticised for, but which brought us the unthinkable “49” and the Unbeaten Season, not to mention with him becoming the most successful FA Cup manager of the last 100 years and in terms of trophies, Arsenal’s greatest manager.
J Carragher recently expressed the view that the Liverpool Way was exampled within the fact that “Liverpool don’t buy stars but make them into stars,” which is a debatable point, but if it is true, one wonders if it is this philosophy that is the heart of their problems.
Arsenal in the 1930s did indeed go out and buy stars. But not all our top players were brought in as stars for just as Wenger has often bought unknowns, so did Chapman. Plus of course the occasional top men, even breaking the world transfer fee record on occasion (although not necessarily with success).
But we also had another tradition of promoting from within. Indeed the whole run of post-Chapman managers were part of the club. Shaw, Allison, Whittaker, Crayston, Swindin – it was a line of players who grew up with the Arsenal Way of doing things. And it worked to a large degree – the first three post-Chapman managers all winning the league.
The attempt to move out of the mould of Arsenal men managing Arsenal was broken with the disaster of Billy Wright being piloted in from without, but redeemed at least for a while and on occasions with Bertie Mee and Terry Neill. True Terry Neill only won one trophy, although he came close twice, and true, Don Howe didn’t win a trophy, but then we were back to success with George Graham.
Yet the fact remains that our two greatest managers have come from without – Chapman and Wenger. Both not only delivered trophies, but also transformed the way the club developed young players and transformed how we played and developed “The Arsenal Way.” When Graham was found guilty of going off the rails, he was removed post-haste.
So yes, to my mind, there is an Arsenal Way. A philosophy of style and pragmatism. Bringing in from without if needed, promoting from within if possible.
Indeed I suspect many of us brought up in London would agree with Carragher when he says that “I just think people in Liverpool have a natural intensity; aggression, if you like.”
That is their style – Arsenal’s is different. Arsenal’s is, I think, more sophisticated, more transformative, more developmental, less aggressive.
The whole point about the style of a club is whether that style allows the club to take the talent that it has and transform it into victories. It involves both a connection with the past and a desire to move forwards.
And this is the bit that most commentators seem to be unable to get.
The Emirates Stadium (hopefully soon to be renamed Stadium Wenger, since he is the man who engineered the ability to pay for it) is a classy place, quite different from every other ground in the Premier League. Quite different from the New Anfield that will emerge from the bulldozed homes and compulsory purchases around the existing ground.
What Arsenal did was take a disastrous waste disposal site and turned it into a stadium we can be proud of – while keeping us in the Champions League all the time. A new ground that remembers our past glories.
This is the sort of thing that writers like John Percy from the Telegraph fail utterly to grasp. Writing after last night’s game against Hull he admitted that, “This was emphatic proof that Arsenal have been the best team in the Premier League over the second half of the season, but Arsene Wenger cannot afford to sit back. He must build from a position of strength this summer and recruit more quality, adding to what he has got already.”
Which is fair enough. We know how we were destroyed by injuries in the first half of the season, and we know that although refereeing has been examined in ways previously unimaginable (this season the Telegraph even ran one of the PGMO press releases for goodness sake), we are still going to be chopped to death and unfairly treated in 2015/16.
So we need more troops – or rather a replacement of troops, since we already have a full compliment of the allowable “25”.
However we will also find another brilliant youngster from within the club. (This is something the media hate to mention since none of them saw Bellerin’s talent, and most thought Coquelin should leave for Charlton as soon as possible).
Thus then the Telegraph man shows his crass ignorance and total lack of connect with Arsenal by adding, “Arsenal supporters will not welcome another “close but no cigar” campaign.”
Leaving aside the fact that many Arsenal fans most certainly do not celebrate a victory with a cigar, and the fact that Arsenal are the holders of the FA Cup and in the final again (perhaps JP at the Telegraph and his editor forgot that detail) this continuing notion that a journalist actually knows what any Arsenal supporters think, let alone what all Arsenal supporters think, is not only crass, it is insulting.
Which gives me my final point about Arsenal’s style. There is a strong individualism at Arsenal which mixes with a sense of “the organisation”. The fans split into all sorts of groups with different opinions (which is how we come to have the aaa), and Wenger is his own man and has gone his own way. So when the press tell us what the boss or the fans think, they always get it utterly wrong.
We are The Arsenal – but any attempt to define us in a few words is bound to fail. That is the final part of the Arsenal Way.
There is a guide to all Arsenal managers since the earliest days, with details of how well (or poorly) each has done, on the Arsenal Managers page of the Arsenal History Society web site.
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