by Tony Attwood
It is hard to find many people in football who don’t have a bad word to say about Arsène Wenger, and Arsenal FC.
In the current era it seemed to start with the journalists who tried to run the original paedophile story when Arsène Wenger first arrived (and who now conveniently forget they were part of the nauseating show as they condemn the fans for singing the song that arose from their actions outside Highbury).
The abuse and distaste then moved on to accusations of footballing incompetence from the anti-Arsenal Mafia who now seemingly ally themselves to these journalists forever saying that Arsenal are not up to it. You only have to go back to the Observer report after the Unbeaten Season to see how it looks – despite the most staggering achievement in modern football the paper ran a wholly negative piece about Arsenal, pointing out that it was wrong to call a season in which a club had only won the league an “Unbeaten” season. Churlish or what?
And constantly in the background we have the fans of Tottenham, still commenting on Arsenal as the club who stole a place in the first division from Tottenham nearly a century ago. And they do this not in terms of historical debate but to symbolise Arsenal, as they see the club. “Same old Arsenal, always cheating.”
But why us? Why do the journalists and broadcasters turn on Arsenal? Why does Arsenal, uniquely among top football clubs, have such a vociferous body of people who claim to be supporters while endlessly attacking the manager and the entire approach of the club? Of course other clubs get abuse both from their own supporters and from the media, but nowhere else do the two combine so vociferously and so regularly to put a club down. Why does it happen, and why does it happen to us?
During the abortive trip to London for the Stoke game (and the return) we got to debating this, (when not talking about the origins of the Italian language, as I mentioned yesterday) and for once actually came up with a few interesting conclusions. Here’s how we see it.
The earliest anti-Arsenal commentaries came in the Woolwich Arsenal days when Newcastle United directors called a visit to the Arsenal, “our trip to hell”, on account of the journey. Teams travelled to games by train in those days, and with most clubs in stadia in the city centres near the railway station, it was but a short horse drawn bus ride from the station to the ground in most cases.
But although the clubs could all get to London by train, the final part of the journey to Woolwich involved crossing London by horse drawn bus or tram (or later the Underground) and then taking the long and tedious tram ride to Woolwich, followed by another long horse drawn bus to Plumstead. (The ferry at Woolwich did not operate in those days – despite the statements to the contrary in the Official History of the club that comes out each year).
That the phrase “trip to hell” stuck is as much an issue of intense northern bias and distrust of southerners as anything else. But there was more. Woolwich Arsenal was also disliked because it was in effect a Scottish club playing in the English league. There were many Scottish players in England but perhaps none more than at Woolwich Arsenal where many players left Scotland to find work at the munitions factory, and then employment in the club, if they could get taken on.
Third, Woolwich Arsenal never won a trophy, and ended their time in Kent bottom of the league and playing in front of crowds of 3000. Yet their image of being an important club never faded, thanks both to their background and the London press. This, remember, was an era where the UK ran a global Empire, and when half the world’s trade went through the ports of London. The Empire was built on coal, enterprise and military might – and nothing symbolised the latter more than the great munitions factories of Woolwich Arsenal. Indeed it is hard to conceive of the scale of the factories – over 25000 were employed there at the time of the Boer War, and these people had jobs vital to the Empire.
As such the name “Woolwich Arsenal” was instantly recognised in a way that “Everton” or “Aston Villa” or “Preston North End” was not. The club had come from Royal Arsenal (perhaps the only club with Royal in the name) and the image grew of a club that was almost an official part of the Empire. The team that were at the heart of the world. No wonder that Woolwich Arsenal named one end of the Manor Ground “Spion Kop”.
And although not exactly in London, Woolwich was considered London’s “first professional club” – the club from the south that dared take on the pros of the north.
Through these connections and associations, Woolwich Arsenal found favour in the London press – not least because George Allison was (from 1910) the programme editor for the club and also the reporter who covered home games at the club for six different London papers (each report written in a different style). He was a director of the club from 1919.
Throughout his time as supporter, historian, director and ultimately manager of the club Allison was a brilliant publicist – and he built the “Arsenal – the unique innovators” brand remorselessly (although many of stories were simply made up). His assertion, for example, that the FA ordered amateur teams not to play Woolwich Arsenal when the club turned pro (another story reported in the Official History) has been shown to be quite untrue by an analysis on the Arsenal History site of the games Arsenal played in the two years between becoming a pro team and joining the Football League. And yet it gave a feeling of Arsenal standing up against the hidebound administrators of the game – Arsenal always pushing forwards, bringing football to the masses.
Thus Allison made sure Arsenal got publicity beyond the norm for other mid-table teams, and helped build up the mystique of the club – something that intensely annoyed northern teams who won the league and cup – which Arsenal singularly failed to do before the last years of Chapman’s reign.
As time went by this resentment seeped into London, and the battles of 1919 show just how intense the anti-Arsenal feeling had become since then. You’ll know the story: the league was being expanded after the war, and the issue to be debated was who would be in the first division, and who in the second. Tottenham had ended up in 1915 bottom of the first, Arsenal finished fifth in the second. Arsenal went up, and Tottenham down, and they have been screaming “fix” ever since.
That the press still run this version is a further example of anti-Arsenal bias. Promotions and relegations were often sorted out by club votes – as Tottenham well knew, having secured a place in the League after coming seventh in the Southern League the season before. Clapton Orient had got elected into the Football League after coming near the bottom of the second division of the Southern League. Bradford City and Chelsea got elected without having a team and, in Chelsea’s case, without having a ground.
But for 1919 there was more – for Liverpool and Manchester United had been found guilty of match fixing to such a level that the whole league table was a fake. And this is where the hatred of Arsenal became cemented. Match fixing was so widespread at the time that everyone was ready to ignore it – except Henry Norris at Arsenal who threatened to split the league, or seek a judicial review, if the matter were not resolved this time. Tottenham with its first division position at stake allied itself with the north. Indeed they, and other clubs, still try on the pathetic “Arsenal was the first franchise club” because we moved 15 miles – forgetting that most clubs moved around a lot at that time. Here’s one example: Millwall moved in the opposite direction across the Thames three years before Arsenal moved.
Thus the position was fixed – Lucky Arsenal, Arsenal always cheating, the cries continued even though many of those involved in carrying the message forward over the years had no idea of the origins.
The arrival of Arsène Wenger re-energised hostilities and the press threw everything at him which the fans of other clubs took up with a vengeance, to be joined by what has become known in some quarters as the Anti-Arsenal Arsenal (AAA) – this huge mob of blogs that snipe and criticise every day.
By why would the press attack Wenger so much rather than someone like the Tottenham manager, currently on bail and facing financial charges, or the Man U manager, for years refusing to speak to much of the media at all. Why don’t they turn on managers like Hughes or Allerdyce who have perfected the anti-football play of timewasting and rotational fouling?
The most obvious reason is because of the way Wenger turned the pedophile story back on them. As the club hierarchy told him not to go out to face the press, he walked out and dared them to mention the story (which would have allowed him to sue for slander). They shied away, and left with tails between legs – and they have been trying to get him ever since.
As for the AAA, in one way they have always been there. I have mentioned recently that I contributed a piece to the new Arsenal in the Community book, “Arsenal til I die”. My piece is about my father and my grandfather, and one part tells of how in the 1930s, with Arsenal in their pomp, supporters would shout abuse at players for not trying hard enough. One defeat and they were rubbish. I personally can remember sitting next to a “fan” at an away game in which Pat Jennings made a couple of errors, and having this “fan” screaming abuse at Jennings – not least for him being a Tottenham player.
That the volume of the AAA is much higher now is undoubtedly the result of technology. We can lose a match and the headlines are about Wenger once again shows his failure to (whatever is deemed the failure this week).
So, I guess, the AAA is just the latest in a long tradition of moaners, who see the cup not even as half empty but as drained to the bottom. And in this regard it is interesting to compare ourselves with Tottenham. Two league championships in their history, the last 50 years ago, but they don’t have nearly such a vigorous anti-Tottenham group as we have with the AAA. Instead they focus on re-writing the history of Arsenal’s promotion and their own embarrassing relegation, while ignoring their later sojourns into the second division. They issue celebratory DVDs of draws with us, while quietly putting aside an embarrassing 4-1 home defeat to our reserve team. They debate the ins and outs of a move to east London, and still call us Woolwich Arsenal for daring to move the same distance.
The AAA is a uniquely Arsenal experience. Personally I could do without it, but there is one relief. Within home and away games they have very little influence. Both at the Ems and away, the crowd is positive. Yes we are chastened by a home defeat – but the noise, the pro-Wenger feeling, the positiveness towards the players, is terrific.
And in a sense I wonder if the press, still seeking revenge for being made to look such idiots when Wenger first arrived, because every time the Man U and Aston V crowd chant their disgusting chant it is a reminder that they got it from the press. And the AAA with their endless negativity, are they not helping the cause inside the stadium where for once we can escape their attitude problems?
I’m not actually going to say thank you to them, for making the stadium such a good experience, but it is the closest I can get to a positive thought with them in mind.
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