My first game that I remember watching was the 1972 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Leeds. I “followed” Arsenal because I liked Alan Ball and rather than keep swapping clubs as he was transferred I just stuck. The alternative in those days was Middlesbrough (the local team) or Leeds (the glamour team). This was in an era when Manchester United would soon be relegated and before the period of Liverpool dominance. This proved to be a brief flirtation with success as Arsenal went into a period of transition and a real low in 1975-76 when they finished 17th. The mediocrity tended to be interspersed with some cup success but in the Premier League Arsenal ended up 12th in 1994-95.
With that short history of my Arsenal supporting, never a season ticketholder and always a distant fan, I’ll nail my colours to the mast: sell Robin Van Persie and don’t take Usmanov money.
The problem today is that Premier League football fans leave reality at home when they go to the football. They have incredibly short memories and they believe money can buy success. Football is littered with stories which show the calamitous results of short-term spending and what an arms race it really is. In my view it all began with Ipswich Town. I went to see Middlesbrough regularly; I couldn’t get to London. I remember going to see Ipswich visit in the late 1970s just to see the two Dutch players they’d purchased. Ipswich had been a typical club with some success over the years. Bobby Robson took over as manager at the end of the 1960s and led them from being a relegation team in the first division to being a contender. Clubs could do this in the old days – organisation and a great manager could lead to relative success. Nottingham Forest were the last club to really generate success the right way – but they overstretched in the end too. Ipswich were the first club to look abroad for success when they brought in Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen. It did have an impact and they had a couple of seasons finishing second before it all started to fall apart and then relegation in 1985. That decline should be a warning to lots of clubs today. They started an arms race they could never win. Manchester United bought Arnold Muhren, Nottingham Forest bought Frans Thijssen and Bobby Robson went to England.
Ultimately it comes down to sustainability. Look at Blackburn at the start of the Premier League, Leeds in the late 1990s. The choice is clear – you can buy temporary success but ultimately all that happens is you stir the pot and the aftermath is never attractive. My view is that what Arsene Wenger has done is a miracle. Since 1992 Arsenal have spent £365m. Chelsea have spent £782m and Manchester City £649m. Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham have spent more than Arsenal. In net terms however, after player sales are taken into account, 10 clubs have spent more than Arsenal including Stoke City, Fulham and Sunderland (thanks to http://www.transferleague.co.uk for the stats). Since 2003 it’s even starker. Chelsea and Manchester City have both spent net over £400m. Arsenal have spent net just £13,000 and 17 clubs have spent more.
The fans currently baying for Arsenal to spend more, and even for Arsene Wenger to leave, are wishing the club away and thankfully the management are ignoring them. The only reason that Chelsea and Manchester City achieve success is at the whim of two incredibly rich people. Roman Abramovich has seen the challenge up close. He has spent £486m in transfer fees and in 9 years they have won 3 league titles, 4 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and most recently the Champions League. In the last season most observers would say that 6th place in the league was poor and the Champions League win was very lucky. They started the arms race and they have been attacked on two fronts. At home Sheikh Mansoor has deeper pockets and in Europe Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona can attract the players, PSG, China, or Russia can pay at least as much. It will be interesting to see what Roman Abramovich’s response to this is – when the shock factor of his big spending is on the wane. What does Chelsea look like without Roman?
And so back to Arsenal. No trophies in 7 years but great football and financial stability. Those of us who realise no-one has a right to win trophies are satisfied with that. People who say “clubs like Arsenal should be winning trophies” don’t know their history or their football. Its only since George Graham and Arsene Wenger that we’ve seen modern success. Football IS a business as clubs like Leeds and Rangers have found to their cost. Get it wrong and there will be no Arsenal. Building a legacy like Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid is the key to success. By this I mean an infrastructure that goes on regardless of owner, players or manager. In 2014 UEFA will assess all clubs for their financial stability under the Financial Fair Play rules. Deloittes have already commented that Chelsea and Manchester City have the furthest distance to travel to compliance in the UK. It’s not clear what the impact of non-compliance will be but Arsenal have bet their future on a stable financial platform. At the heart of financial stability is wages. Fans often overlook this when talking about finances. The transfer fee is interesting to selling clubs and fans but players are far more interested in the pay packet. In the Premier League wages are now 70% of the revenue and putting enormous pressure on profitability. It’s easy for upstart clubs to offer huge wages to attract unlikely stars in the short term just as Manchester City did originally – anyone remember the ridiculous Kaka fiasco? The plan was that after a couple of players were attracted other would follow. In Leeds’s case the legacy of failing to qualify for Europe and being saddled with lots of players on long-term contracts with high wages was what broke them. If Chelsea hadn’t won the European Champions League they would have been in a very difficult position going forward.
So in the scheme of things Robin Van Persie’s antics are small beer. All the talk about ambition is nonsense – he wants to join Na$ri, Clichy, Toure, and Adebayor and line his pockets. That’s an inevitable consequence of football as a business – no shame in it unless you try to pretend it’s something else and Ajax have made a virtue of it. RVP’s given poor value to Arsenal over the years and has been carried through most seasons. Only last season did he finally produce the goods. With the exception of Na$ri, can any Arsenal fan honestly say we now have a worse left back than Clichy, a worse Centre half than Kolo, or that Adebayor was an unstoppable goal machine? If Usmanov was invited on the Board and he did open his chequebook we would have a short window before a newer, shinier oligarch with even more money stepped up at another club as Roman Abramovich has found to his immense cost.
True Arsenal fans could do worse than enjoy what they see on the pitch and be grateful that their children should also be able to watch the same. There will be trophies in future but untainted by oligarch’s wealth. I want my team to win trophies the way Nottingham Forest and not buy them like Blackburn Rovers did for a very brief period.