Are Arsenal fans entitled to success? by JS
The good and the wise will tell us that FA Cups no longer count as a barometer for success. They are mere trinkets. Arsenal can only be measured by reference to league titles and this is what a club of our stature deserves. At least that is what the “real fans” tell us. But where does this entitlement come from because we are, after all, just one of 92 clubs playing in the professional football league in England. We are not the richest, nor the oldest, nor the most famous, nor the most decorated even though we rank high on all those metrics. Are we more deserving of the rest? Is this sense of entitlement intrinsically linked to an ignorance of Arsenal FC’s history in particular and football in general? Or is it merely because we “pay the highest ticket prices in Europe” that AFC should buy the players the fans want, have the new manager they deem necessary every few years and collect silverware every season. Or, as I will suggest, is it Wenger’s “fault” that this entitlement exists in the first place?
Even before our entry in to the top division and the move to Highbury in 1913 the Woolwich Arsenal were one of the most famous football teams in the world – being the adopted team of the British armed forces stationed around the world. Arsenal between 1930 and 1953 were one of the most famous and feared club teams in the world as well as being incredibly dominant and successful. However, like with most sports, success and failure can swap places very quickly because between 1953 and 1970, Arsenal won nothing. During this period they lost two League Cup finals, never got past the FA Cup quarter-finals, and finished on average around eighth in the league. 1971 offered some hope for a better future with the heroic double but it didn’t happen. 1974-79 saw league finishes of 10th, 16th, 17th, 8th, 5th and 7th. 1977 saw us break a club record – 7 consecutive league defeats (imagine that now!!!).
It would be another 18 years before the next league title. And when it came at Anfield in 1989 it was in possibly the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. 1991 was the season of the “Nearly Invincibles” losing just 1 league game, but was marred with a points deduction following the Manchester United brawl and our club captain getting a prison sentence for drink-driving. On the field this season was the pinnacle for George Graham as “boring, boring Arsenal” rang out in grounds all around the country. 1992-96 saw league finishes of 4th, 10th, 4th, 12th and 5th. So a “smash and grab” in 1989 and a relative stroll in the park in 1991 at a time that coincided with the demise of Liverpool and before the re-emergence of Manchester United saw two very welcome league titles come our way. We were happy for a short while but anyone who was around at the time will tell you that something was not right soon after 1991, and that 1992-1996 was not a great time to be a Gooner. We were on the slide and our recent triumphs were fading fast. Enter Mr Wenger.
If any of you have been tagged with the fantastic “4th place junkie” moniker or are of the “delusional” persuasion you would have had a hard time of it pre-Wenger, with Arsenal achieving just 16 top 4 finishes in the 51 post-war seasons before he arrived. Who knows, maybe we could have been “8th placed junkies” instead! With that in mind, it would do well to reflect on the 19 consecutive top 4 finishes in 19 seasons achieved by Wenger. It is worth also noting that only 8 teams have ever achieved a PL top 4 place (Manchester United (18), Chelsea (13), Liverpool (11), Manchester City (5), Leeds United (3), Newcastle (3), Tottenham (2), Everton (1)). Without doubt it is not a trophy, but it is equally without doubt that our present position and recent history would be very different if we had been outside the top 4 on a regular basis.
And back to Wenger’s 6 FA Cups. The same total as that won by 23 Arsenal managers over a 100 year period prior to him. It is fashionable to deride the cup and I have seen comments to the effect “well if Wigan or Portsmouth can win it then so what – no big deal”. Selective memory syndrome at its finest. They do not mention the only other winners in Wenger’s time; Chelsea (5), Manchester United (2), Liverpool (2), Manchester City (1).
Bottom line is, if you get any proper football fan from any club with an IQ of more than 100 (away from their tribal environment and from the anonymity and key-board bravado of the internet) face-to-face for some proper football banter, they will freely confide that these are impressive achievements and many other clubs are undoubtedly jealous. So, Wenger has won the league the same number of times as all the Arsenal managers achieved in the 43 years prior to his arrival, won the FA cup the same number of times as all his predecessors in history and has set the record for PL consistency and UCL qualification, on a budget and playing some decent stuff along the way. So what are we entitled to expect? And how hard is it to win the PL title now?
Henry as good as admitted himself last week that winning the Premier League is way harder than in his day. Whilst the “10 year title drought” is being forced down our throats everywhere you turn, it is easy to overlook other equally striking examples that do not garner such attention. Of all the teams ever to have won the top-flight league we have the shortest “famine” period between titles. 10 years with no title has become the standard media mantra and is supposedly an unmitigated embarrassment, picked up on and re-hashed with glee by a section of unfulfilled supporters. I mean really, do people listen to themselves? We can spin these “droughts” and “underachievement” any way we want. For example, prior to last season Chelsea had won the PL just once in 8 seasons despite the continual spending and procession of managers. To use European examples – Real Madrid have one La Liga title in the last 7 seasons. AC Milan with one Serie A title in 11 seasons. Dortmund with 2 league titles in 13 years. Atletico Madrid with one title in 19 years. These are all clubs with greater comparable riches in their respective leagues than us.
And where is the media panning of Liverpool – greater spending than us but nothing in 25 years. Do the media rate us so highly that they make us a special case for attention? You would have to think so judging by the column inches devoted to the subject. And whilst everyone can see the effect the stadium construction had on spending (zero net spend for nearly 10 years) this too is airbrushed out of any conversation as to what Arsenal should have achieved in the “bleak” years between 2006-2013. The AOBs will tell you with certainty that Martinez/Rodgers/Klopp/Simeone/Koeman/ Mourinho/Guardiola/Pullis/Any Other Manager (*delete as appropriate) would not have needed money and would have had the trophies rolling in on a regular basis. Simple to say, but not convincing or provable.
So, back to the question – where does this rampant and sometimes belligerent entitlement we commonly hear/see from a significant group of Arsenal fans come from? If you want to know what “mediocrity” really is, study the history of Arsenal from 1955 -1995. We are presently the fourth richest club in the world’s second most competitive league (after the Championship) with a fairly patchy and underwhelming history for most of the 50 years prior to Wenger arriving. For the fans, Arsenal’s achievements from 1998 to 2004 set the bar high and were Wenger’s crowning glory. For Wenger himself he is recently quoted as saying that his greatest achievement will ultimately be seen as the period between 2007 and 2013.
So next time you talk about what we “deserve” be sure to know our history and understand that this 2015 discussion would in all probability be something very low-key and uninspirational if history had been different and Dein had not signed up a little known French manager in September 1996.