The Board does not seem bothered. And in a way, the reaction of the Board is quite reasonable. It is reasonable at least from a private investor perspective: under this management, the club has been participating in the most lucrative football competition in the world (Champions League) with all the additional perks stemming from participation: TV rights, merchandising, sponsoring, AFC becoming an attractive club for players, agents, etc. Assuming nothing changes and AFC continues to participate in the Champions League, the business model will continue to work and AFC will maximise profits.
Even with similar results though, there is no guarantee that things will stay the same. For fans – not corporate fans interested in a box where they can entertain clients and watch some minutes of football, but the hardcore fans, the Islington crowd – success means silverware. AFC might find it hard to replace these fans with corporate fans, and the moment the Islington crowd walks away, sponsors might rethink their investment as well. After all it is the fans’ market they are interested in. Some might point to US sports and argue that clubs that win nothing for years still manage to increase their value. There are two important caveats to this: first, exit in US sports is unusual and entry is limited: clubs cannot be replaced, other than in extraordinary circumstances. In Europe the promotion/relegation system makes it possible to have a change of guard every year. Second, the competitive balance is continuously restored through schemes such as salary caps, unknown to Europe. So those who argue, for example, that the NY Jets fill the stadium although they have not been winning for years should revisit the time-span used for their observation: the Jets did win a generation ago (more or less the time span for most teams) and are coming strong now again. The same is true for most US teams across professional sports. Football success is necessary for business success: this is the point here.
Suces Re-defined Since 2004, Arsenal fans have not had much to cheer about. Even the FA Cup in 2005 left a sour taste in the mouth, since for many this should have been the year of the double-Double. Success for top clubs is easy to define, more or less: it is the silverware in the board room. By that benchmark, Arsenal has not been successful in recent years. Does this mean that Arsenal has not been successful full stop? And what are the reasons for lack of success, assuming a positive response to this question is warranted?
To respond to the first question, we need a benchmark. Looking back to Arsenal’s glorious history, then yes, there have been longer spells without trophies in the past. I have been an Arsenal fan since the end of the 1960s, and had to wait from the early to the late 1970s and then the 1980s before we tasted any success. Not to mention that we had to wait 18 years for a title.
Arsenal is more competitive financially now than it has ever been before
Are the two periods comparable? It is difficult to be clear as to what leads to success, for if it was easy, those with the formula would be repeating success every year. Even Manchester United and Liverpool, by far the most successful clubs in the history of English football, have gone through many years with no silverware, and were even relegated to the (then) second division - Manchester United in my lifetime. Relegation would be unthinkable for Manchester United in today’s world. I make this
18 onlinegooner.com point simply to illustrate that clubs have known serious ups and downs in their history even in a generation. The unit of account is the club, yet the comparability across two situations is not guaranteed simply because we speak of the same club. Indeed, I belong to the generation where Chelsea was for long years never a threat, when we could buy their best players (like Alan Hudson, one of the most gifted players ever to wear the Arsenal shirt and, thankfully, in the same side as my hero, ‘Chippy’ Brady).
And then, there comes a Russian billionaire, who manages to change the course of their history and transform them to a titlecontender year in, year out. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Chelsea (I mean no disrespect to anyone) since, if we go back in history before my time as a fan, Chelsea was a high flyer. The point here is that each period has its own characteristics and those who make the point that Arsenal has known worse periods (in terms of absence of success) have the onus also to compare the two periods they are referring to.
To do that, however, we need data, and this is what we are missing. There are popular stories floating around, like we needed to tighten our belts to finance the stadium (which was supposed to make us not lose money; at least, that was the original story). What we do know is the club’s revealed preferences, the observables: the players AFC has and has not signed, and the manner in which it has reacted to criticism.
Before I detail this last point, let me say this: in George Graham’s era, on his account, we could not compete with Blackburn for the signature of Chris Sutton. I imagine we could do that much nowadays.
Arsenal is more competitive financially now than it has ever been before. Statistics published by various football bodies make this point crystal clear. And to be fair, the current management under Arsène Wenger has contributed a lot to that. After all, it was football success that brought in new investors and made people willing to go the extra mile to finance high salaries for players, coaching staff and a new, modern stadium. In terms of football success, the Wenger-era is one of our good periods, not the best and definitely not the only: before my time, Herbert Chapman built amazing teams and unfortunately did not live long enough to enjoy more success. In my time, AFC won six trophies in George Graham’s eight years, and seven in Wenger’s 15. In my time also, we played - under two different managers - five finals in the 1970s. Arsenal was not built in 1996. It has a glorious history full of titles and will be soon celebrating 100 years of continuous presence in the top flight. No-one else can claim that much.
Why can we not then translate smart management (for Wenger is undeniably a smart man), money (the business model works), and a great relationship between Board and management into more silverware? That is the question I will try and answer next time.
“First prevent Wenger from getting to the dugout area, cut off radio and telephone communication from the main stand to the dugout and keep your eyes peeled... as he is a master of disguise!”