How Arsenal, the club of revolutions, became the club of “be like everyone else”

By Tony Attwood

It is (for me at least even if no one else) fascinating to see how the argument against the Kroenke ownership of Arsenal has been conducted through the notion that Arsenal is the club of tradition – the club upholding the great values of football against the incomers who don’t understand what football is about.

Fascinating because when the club was set up Arsenal was not this at all.  Arsenal was the club that tore up the old ways of doing things and openly strove to be a new type of football club.  Arsenal the club of traditions is quite a recent invention.

Until Royal Arsenal FC came along, clubs were set up by paternalistic factory owners or by churches as an activity for their workers, and to keep young men on the straight and narrow and off the streets.   The Royal Arsenal men setting up their own club, and then even more radically, running it themselves, was seen by some as dangerously revolutionary, and by others as certain to fail.

So strong was this feeling that when a second revolutionary step was taken (that of actually paying the players) a coup was attempted by some members of the club to bring Royal Arsenal back onto the straight and narrow.  Footballers should not be paid!

The coup involved getting the landlord of the Royal Arsenal ground to increase the rent massively, forcing the workers run club out of business, allowing the businessmen to take over.  But this time the workers were too smart and saw off the bourgeoisie carried on.

So Arsenal was run by a committee elected from the working men of the factories, and the first chairman of Arsenal as a league club was indeed elected from this group, by the members.

Although Woolwich Arsenal did run into financial trouble, this was not the club’s fault – it was largely due to the closure of factories at the Royal Arsenal, and thus the reduction of the workforce who would support the club.   But even then the notion of radical solutions was continued.  Arsenal moved grounds.

No club had ever moved in this way before and the League even had to look at its own rules and regulations to see if it was allowable.   This move was a staggering success.   Crowds massively increased.

In these days Arsenal were not even precious about their name – Dial Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal – it took many a year before it was just Arsenal.  But there was never any looking back or call for tradition to be upheld.  Arsenal was always the radical club.

Indeed it was Arsenal who constantly argued for the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers. But the rest of the clubs, owned by the ultra conservatives, stood for the opposite – giving working men more pay was not their idea of a well run business.

The radical approach of Arsenal continued into the Chapman era, as he was at the forefront of utilising a change in the offside law as a way of totally transforming team tactics (and it was far more than pulling the centre half back to make a back three, as some books will tell you).

Even the change in the club’s shirts caused a national outcry.  It may seem hard to believe but before Arsenal went for white sleeves, no one in the country, in football or otherwise, had ever seen a shirt with different coloured sleeves from the body of the shirt.  It was a lead story in the newspapers!

Arsenal were also radical in the notion of overseas tours.  I think many assume that the summer tour is something of recent invention.  But Arsenal toured overseas from 1907 onward, spreading the legend of the club of the Empire’s armaments factories.  It is how the name of Arsenal became known across Europe.

Radical approaches to football were what Arsenal was about.   The annual game in Paris from 1930 to raise money for veterans and their families was a completely novel idea (especially as the team flew to Paris and terrified most of them).

All the experiments with broadcasting football came from Arsenal – the first radio commentary, the first live TV of a match, the first making of a movie based around a club with the Arsenal Stadium Mystery.

It was through decades of tearing up traditions and venturing forth into new untried territory that was the Arsenal way through all these years.  We were even the first (or at least one of the very first) club to try playing floodlit football, but stringing a series of gas light across the pitch.   

But now it seems we have become the club that in the eyes of many supporters, should not embrace the new.  Instead I fear we have been persuaded by the media to be like every other club.  Sack half the team, and buy new players, reject SuperLeague, be like everyone else.

Arsenal was created as a club that thought differently, and did things differently.  We seem to have lost that.

Football: the great reform bill and the breakaway

4 Replies to “How Arsenal, the club of revolutions, became the club of “be like everyone else””

  1. Super League is not a good revolution. It’s a meritless league and therefore it’s anti-sport. Arsenal actually became like every other club when they joined that abomination of free-money-for-the-billionaires of a league. Otherwise a nice article. Too bad you obviously took money from Florentino to write it.

  2. Once Great – you really ought to exercise a little more care with making wild accusations like that. when you write to a website you are revealing your IP address and other information about yourself and you have just libelled me.
    If you took a few moments to read through this blog you will know how completely independent it is in terms of its writers.

  3. @OnceGreat if you read the apology from the board they said they felt they did not want to miss the opportunity in joining a new league as Tony has pointed out in this article that Arsenal has tried new things and were first in being played on radio, being televised, played in colour tv?, first broadcase on 3d tv etc.

    As Wenger said the ESL was not a well thought out process hence it flopped.

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