By Tony Attwood
I am sure there will be many who will agree with a headline in the Daily Telegraph that reads “Arsenal are still exhibiting all their old failings with expensive new personnel” and another in the same paper today, “Harry Kane goal confirms power shift in North London”. Or in the Independent “Derby defeat shows Arsenal have not fixed the fundamentals” and so on and on.
Our two new players are being rated after two games. And I wondered what might have happened if Thierry Henry had treated in the same way. (Indeed I think he was, but Mr Wenger chose to stick to what he believed in). You will recall (or have read) that not only did Henry fail to score a single goal in his first eight games, but Mr Wenger had paid for him what was considered an outrageous fee at the time of £11m.
Henry and Wenger were lambasted during that period, and subsequently journalistic apologies for the hysteria were noticeable by their absence.
One might also recall reactions to Dennis Bergkamp’s early games in 1995/6. It was again a case of immediate reaction to the situation, and immediate judgement which turned out to be false.
Judgement on changes is instant and the emotional belief that somehow things could be better if only one more change were to be made (normally replacing the manager) remains. And of course sometimes that is right – change the manager, change a player, change the team, and you can make things better. But not always, and indeed not most of the time.
But occasionally other justifications are made. I recently saw the comment that the Wenger reign at Arsenal had been the worst in the club’s history – a complaint that at least had the merit of being original even if bonkers.
The best Arsenal period of 21 years was 1929/30 to 1956/57 – which of course looks like more than 21 years but takes into account the shut down of league and cup football for the duration of the second world war.
During that 21 year period Arsenal won the league seven times, and the FA Cup three times. The lowest position we came during that era was 14th, in the first season of the era (when Arsenal won the FA Cup in 1929/30 – their first ever trophy). Later in the run they notched up a 12th and 13th, but otherwise stayed in the top ten.
During the last 21 years Arsenal have won the league three times and the FA Cup seven times. Our lowest position has been 5th. So a reverse of trophies but a higher position. I’m counting the earlier period as better as most agree that the League is harder to win than the Cup.
That comparison shows (to me at least if no one else) that the club has no God-given right to be at the top. The fact is that over the history of the club we have not been the dominant team in the Football League – we’ve won the League 13 times and the FA Cup 13 times. That 13 is a record for the FA Cup but Liverpool and Manchester United have both exceeded our League total; 20 for Man U and 18 for Liverpool.
My point in dragging up all this history (which of course you will know is a passion of mine, if your read the blog of the AISA Arsenal History Society) is that the club self-evidently doesn’t have the absolute right to be at the top. Add to that obvious observation a second fairly obvious point, that a lot of other teams fancy being the dominant team of the era, and one starts to get the beginning of a sense of perspective.
Add to all this an awareness of our worst period in living memory of 1953/4 to 1968/9 in which we won none of the major trophies and had lows of 12th (twice), 13th (twice) and 14th in the League and some of the short-termist “judge the players after one game” begins to look a bit silly. (The book “Arsenal the long sleep” by Jon Sowman covers the period brilliantly).
Interestingly, in the club’s greatest period from the 1929/30 season to the outbreak of war, Arsenal became known as the “Bank of England” club because of the money spent on transfers. It is a title still thrown at the club by people who try and counter the arguments relating to the level of wealth that clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City can call on.
But the money Arsenal had in the 1930s came from one very simple bit of foresight: the move of the club from south London to north London in 1913, and the decision, not to build a stadium that was equivalent to the size of the old south London ground, but one that could hold over 73,000. Crowds were the source of the money, and Henry Norris, who engineered the move, realised this.
He not only moved the club to a location where there was good transport, but also one where there was already an interest in football (with Tottenham Hotspur and Clapton Orient being close by). That meant that the local papers would endlessly having something in the football world to talk about, and would develop a local passion for football, beyond that which already existed.
That is where the money came from, and indeed that, plus the subsequent sponsorship and world wide marketing is where Manchester United’s money comes from.
Of course no level of world wide marketing is going to match the availability of money that Manchester City now has – that will need access to another sovereign wealth fund – but it gives a context.
“Give it time” may not be a popular concept in football these days, but it is one worth heeding, for many a club has made a sudden change, and even seen short term improvement as a result, only to wish that they had thought a little harder.
Mr Wenger’s first season, 1996/7, ended like this. Looking down the list I can think of quite a few clubs that could have done a little bit better with their long term planning. Clubs like Newcastle, Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Wimbledon, Leeds, Derby, Blackburn, Coventry, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Forest. Indeed even Tottenham who beat us yesterday and are now hailed as the greatest of teams, has only won two trophies (both the league cup) since that league table was first published. Just remember nine clubs out of that list of 20 are no longer in the PL and one (Newcastle) has had a troubled time.
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