By Tony Attwood
There was a commentary posted on the Arsenal History blog this weekend which ended with the author saying something along the lines of, “I don’t know what’s happened to Arsenal but it is not the Arsenal I recognise.”
It is a comment often heard, the most common formulation of it being “Give me my Arsenal back”.
Yet this has always puzzled me, because such statements never identify what “my Arsenal” is or when “my Arsenal” was. Was it the early years of the Wenger regime when seemingly without breaking breath we took on both the media and the rest of football and won lots of stuff?
Or was it perhaps some mythical age when it cost two shillings and sixpence to enter the ground and we won everything under the guidance of Swindin and Wright? Or maybe even further back to the days of Chapman, the man who stands tall at the Arsenal end of the South Bridge. No, that can’t be right, for surely there is no one left who seriously can remember the days of Chapman and Allison.
But what is missing in these various scenarios is not just an identification of when “my Arsenal” existed but who it was who destroyed “my Arsenal”.
In my view it was not the bloated felines in the board room, nor incompetent managers although goodness knows we have seen enough of those through our 126 year history, if trophies are anything to measure by. (The norm in Arsenal’s history, in case you don’t get my drift, is not to win things, rather than the reverse).
No, mostly we have got into the state we are in by football players whose one and only hymn to the Almighty was written by Lennon and McCartney and has the chorus line “Give me money, that’s what I want”.
It needn’t have been like this, of course. When the mega-TV-deals from Sky first came through there was a move by one of the chairmen of the time to take what then seemed to be insane sums (but which are now a simple shadow of the income from overseas earnings alone) and put a sizeable amount of the money aside for football development and insurance against future problems.
“Otherwise,” I remember this chairman saying, “we’ll piss it all up against the wall in players’ wages.”
Most of the rest of top league football would have nothing to do with it, and I must admit that I had a knee jerk reaction to dismiss the notion too, although not because it was not a good idea, but because of who said it.
It was in fact proclaimed by Alan Sugar then of Tottenham Hotspur, and yes, I am really ashamed of the fact that my innate bias against our neighbours stopped me evaluating the idea properly.
Now it still pains me to say it, but Sugar was right. If our problems have come from anywhere, they have come from ever spiralling player wage costs. It is the insane salaries that clubs are forced to pay to stay competitive in the top division that has destroyed “my Arsenal” wherever and whatever that concept actually is or was.
Of course as Arsenal fans we can stand tall (if we know our history that is) when contemplating the financial history of football because it was our chairman (Lt Col Sir Henry Norris) who campaigned for an end to the maximum wage long before any other chairman would support that notion.
The maximum wage was pernicious and a wholly unreasonable way to reward the men who actually played the football. Ultimately the retain and transfer system, and the maximum wage, were ruled illegal, and players had the freedom most of us had, to negotiate salaries.
But it was not that which led to the appalling situation of footballers earning £5 million a year or more. It was the Sky money, and the refusal of other chairmen to follow Alan Sugar’s suggestion which brought about the transfer of RVP to Man U, nothing else.
Now we all suffer. Had Norris’ early view on abandoning the maximum wage been accepted maybe football would have had a more graceful move into modernity. Had Sugar’s vision of holding some of the Sky money in a central fund rather than giving it all to the clubs maybe we would have stopped the current post-modern insanity.
As it is, we are now looking around with increasing desperation to find ways to get football finances under control, at least before the Premier League looks like the top division in Russia where increasing numbers of clubs are all run by billionaires (apart from the occasional one bought by a billionaire and given to his son as a plaything).
What we need now is a determined vision. Not one that says, give me back my mythical past, nor indeed one that says, “Spend some fucking money”, but something that goes much further.
The footballing system might be stable, but if it is, it is only stable in the sense that any billionaire, or any country of zero democracy which is run by a family, can buy a club and take it up the league.
As I have written before, I do welcome the development of FFP by Uefa, and the variant form developed by the Premier League for internal control. And I shall watch with interest the legal cases that I suspect are inevitable as clubs either claim that the implementation of such rules are illegal or biased, or as the organisations that introduce them sue clubs that they suggest have broken these rules.
It is quite probably going to be bloody, and a right royal cock-up. It will also be interesting, and in the end will determine exactly how football proceeds for the next fifty years.
At least, like the Chinese, I can say that I live in interesting times.
- If you can’t take the ups and downs don’t bother with Arsenal
- Kean was the key man this time, not Dean
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC: crowd behaviour at the early matches
- Referee Decisions - just what are the refs up to this season?
- Parent News - what is going on in schools these days?
- The weight loss programme: The only guaranteed way to stay fit
- The Arsenal History Blog from the AISA Arsenal History Society