Expectations: a sideways view
Today I want to take a different perspective, to take stock of where we were as Arsenal after the first year of the Premier League and through the second. Because Arsenal are different to all other English teams in many ways. How so? And was the Premier League likely to change that?
Arsenal were innovators, led by the astonishing Herbert Chapman. Floodlights, physiotherapy, training techniques, the WM formation, European competition, an impressive stadium, and numbered shirts were all areas that he championed. Football always had its dodgy elements, but he believed in sporting values, the Arsenal way. He did have a reputation for subterfuge when it came to transfer dealings however, famously getting a rival board of directors drunk before finagling a deal in his favour.
WM: Today's formations are just variants
Arsenal equals class
Footballers can always come back to Arsenal for medical treatment, for example and in general we have a good reputation regarding ex-players. Arsenal are classy, as was Mr Chapman, reflected in the famed marble halls that adorned the inside of the ground.
In the period I have been writing about, though, they were also known as mean, reluctant to pay high wages or big transfers. And, as I pointed out here, this was reflected in our trophy cabinet until George Graham arrived. We were mostly pretty average from 1953 until now. Now, we had 2 league titles, 2 league cups and one FA cup between 1989 and 1993. Better than anyone else, even though we still weren’t splashing cash like crazy, George Graham had assembled a top team who were better drilled than any other. But the backpass rule change made its difference. Now, he would have to figure out a way around it. I figured he would but he was soon to blow up his time at Arsenal with the infamous bung scandal, however I will leave the details of that to a future blog.
We didn't allow bungs
I will say that bungs were normal in English football, with many famous managers collecting underhand payments from the transfer market. Only Arsenal, though, would never forgive, and George Graham will probably never get the statue he deserves. He had finally made us the best team in the land and it had all gone wrong. He had gone against Arsenal values and paid the price.
And so to the Premier league. What was the difference here? Far bigger money for the big clubs, for sure. Manchester United, Spurs, Chelsea, Man City, Newcastle, Leeds and other big clubs had been relegated, sometimes more than once, in the time I have been writing about. Since then not so much. It is getting harder to see that happening except for Newcastle style bad administration. The balance had been tilted in favour of clubs with money and Arsenal had money. Would they now spend it? At this point, it was hard to say. Up to now Graham had splashed the cash for Ian Wright at 2.5 million but in general between buying and selling not a lot was spent. He was like Wenger, he had an idea of the player he wanted and didn’t like wasting money.
We didn't like spending
Manchester United and Liverpool were never afraid of spending money. Blackburn had come up from the championship and would pay big money to become competitive. I, and other Arsenal fans, feared that we could get left behind. We were 10th and poor in the league. 2 cup wins gave us hope but Irishman Eddie McGoldrick from Palace was our major signing and we sold Anders Limpar, so again, overall our spend wasn’t big.
Eddie McGoldrick: our mercurial Irishman
One major change was the size of the squads. This was the weapon to ensure that the big clubs could stay big. The wage bill jumped as they endeavoured to squeeze out the little guys. To give an example, in season 1993-94 27 players played competitive games for us. We had won the double with far less than half that in 1971.
Were we now a major club?
But we were Arsenal, we were a big club, undisputedly, from our history. Could we now take the stage on this new trophy, which looked like the old First division, but had morphed into a money making machine for big clubs? Were we really a big club now? Could we kick ass and send teams home crying? I wasn’t so confident.
The bizarre thing is that David Dein, our vice chairman at the time, is generally credited with being the main driver of the Premier League. So who was he? He was the revolutionary force trying to make Arsenal the best team in the world. He kept putting money into Arsenal from 1983 onwards until he had a large shareholding of 42%. He pushed against the conservative values of the Hill-Woods and other long term board members. Outside of Dein, they had all been there for generations.
David Dein had huge knowledge and networks
He was different. He was a football man. He understood the international game in a way few else did. He spoke to all the players and was always willing to help them, advise them, and give them a boost.
But he did have a tough job modernising the attitudes of the board. The rivers of money that was starting to flow into the Premier League and top level football generally, needed to flow Arsenal’s way as well. He was heavily involved behind the scenes in transfer activity and in representing Arsenal at the higher levels of English and world football. He was obviously trusted at such levels as he held positions for long times. The Premier League was a new way to do football and he was a key man.
So surely he could make sure that Arsenal benefitted? For that first season we certainly didn’t. This season we finished fourth. We had an extraordinary number of draws but we got 71 points. We still couldn’t really score in the league with only 53 goals out of 42 matches. This was the worst in the top nine. Ian Wright managed 23 of these so he wasn’t the problem. We just weren’t the smooth machine of the pre backpass change. Graham needed to step up and fix it. So we needed Graham to sort things out on the pitch and Dein to sort things out at the owner level to ensure the Premier League would work for us. Next blog I will analyse what happened this season, the good and the bad, and see if there was reasons for optimism. Could we be Arsenal in the shiny new Premier League? A team to be feared? The first 2 seasons didn’t look so good. We needed to be better.