People in football are a superstitious lot. From lucky shirts to not changing a particular pair of socks until the team loses, the world of football is littered with such anecdotes. Here at The Arsenal we have in addition to this folklore, the run of bad luck which season after season never fails. From losing to bogey teams when the team has to travel away, to the curse of November which always saw us drop many points during the campaign. I now add to this the curse of being Arsenal captain. Don’t get me wrong, I am not necessarily saying that it is a curse for the player, rather a curse for us Gooners. It was almost like a Romany Gypsy curse, as nothing good would ever come out of being made Arsenal captain under Arsène Wenger. The player would prosper perhaps but we the loyal fans would suffer the indignity of seeing the player win trophies.
I was reading the blog Arsenal History and Andy Kelly’s piece in November 2014 which listed Arsenal captains down the decades whilst thinking in the summer yet another Arsenal captain will be sold and be off to better things, when I got the inspiration to check the actual facts. What I am about to reveal is scary especially when thinking about Robin van Persie and how he left the club. I will come to that in more detail later.
The problem in my opinion was at first glance Arsène Wenger and not the players. Wenger seemed to make a habit of selling his club captain shortly after giving him the post. It was a true Gypsy curse. I used to dread which of our best players was going to be made captain next because it meant that Wenger probably had plans to sell him. I am convinced that Wenger was able to avoid the flack of selling our best players by this kind of strategy. Wenger would talk up the value of the player and how he would not be leaving. In truth I think that this was an ingenious way by Wenger to publicly be seen to try and convince the player to stay at Arsenal whilst at the same time daring him to commit a selfish and shameful act, thus deflecting any criticism that might come his way.
The player himself via his agent or otherwise would unwittingly fall for this and in an effort to keep a good move alive, the player would also swear loyalty to the badge whilst going around the training ground saying their goodbyes. This tactic also added to the speculation that a big money move would follow.
Andy Kelly’s piece on the Arsenal History website was entitled 'The list of Arsenal Captains from Day One'. I saw some names in sequence that revealed a fascinating insight into this curse and confirmed its existence.
Patrick Vieira 2002-2005
Thierry Henry 2005-2007
Cesc Fabregas 2008-2011
Robin van Persie 2011-2012
Thomas Vermaelen 2012-2014
Mikel Arteta 2014-2016
So let’s start with PV4. In an article by Jon Brodkin and Michael Walker in the Guardian on 14th July 2005, it was written that “Patrick Vieira has accepted that Arsenal are ready to let him go and he will not try to stay if the club reach an agreement for his departure.” PV later signed for Juve for £13.75 million in August 2005. Was this a specific Wenger move for Arsenal’s financial bottom line or just doing what Arsenal in truth has always done? I refer of course to the practice of cashing in on the family silver, not an exclusive Wenger trait if you recall the move of Rocky Rocastle under George Graham. Back then Rocky had a niggling knee injury which contributed to the club selling him. The difference however back then was not a curse but a hard-nosed business decision. The Club needed a return in cash. This has since become more obvious when years later there is the pure football logic for clubs to survive in the face of spiraling player salaries. This obliges clubs to make a choice between ambition and survival as a solvent entity.
Now in order to survive in the brave new world of what Wenger termed ‘financial doping’, which sees hugely wealthy financial investors buy football clubs to gain more fortune rather than being grassroot fans, clubs faced having to sell their best players to avoid dropping out of the lucrative gravy train that is the Premier League. Now going down the list, next is our Titi. Perhaps the departure of TH14 for Barcelona after his spell as captain provided an insight into the ruthlessness of Arsène Wenger and why I felt the past precedents had given Wenger cover to sell his best players. Thierry Henry had been expected to move to Barcelona the season prior before an emotional Champion’s League final in Paris changed all that. I recall being at the game at half time, and I sang with my son Jonathan, something that I had made up on the spot to the tune of ‘Nick Nack Paddy Whack’ - “Ten men down, one nil up, we’re gonna win the f***ing cup”. Thierry Henry was a true Arsenal fan, he must have recalled the anguish of the fans when he had that untypical miss when he was one on one with the Barca keeper. A goal that if scored at that point, would have changed the dynamic with Arsenal being two nil up against the Catalans. An emotional Titi decided to stay on one more season much to our delight. This has cemented Thierry Henry in the hearts of many fans. This was genuine love between the player and his fans.
Now, Wenger’s legacy included his ability to make breathtaking transfer deals whilst also failing to re-sign Arsenal gems. The scandals that followed never seemed to see the mess landing at Wenger’s door, and it was often left for the players to kiss and tell later on down the line. This where I have ambivalence with some sympathy yet some anger also for Wenger. He sometimes had no choice in the letting players go on a “Bosman” - as it was termed them after the EU Court of Justice decision in 1995 to protect the right of workers’ freedom of movement by banning restrictions on foreign EU players within national leagues. This allowed those players in the EU to move to another club at the end of a contract on a “free”. No better example was the Flamini debacle, which deserves an entire blog of its own, but I must swiftly move on.
Gooners used to recite the mantra - players who leave Arsenal don’t go on to better things. It was Arsène Wenger in 2017 who himself hit out at Keiran Gibbs’ decision to leave for West Bromwich Albion to improve his game. Recall that before him one Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s £40 million move to Anfield was uncomfortable for him when this player was quoted as stating the reasons for his departure was to “take his game to the next level”. This was seen as a direct criticism of Wenger which always prompted his push back. Wenger never admitted his failings, somewhat Trump-like. However facts don’t lie and perhaps this is best illustrated by this wonderful graphic from an article by Stephen Slayford in Sporting Intelligence in May 2013. It’s worth examining for how many players actually went on to win trophies and bigger and better things rather than staying under the clueless Wenger.
Players do find the ambition of other clubs appealing and whether we as fans like it or not, loyalty to a club comes behind salaries and trophies that can be won by the player as a result of a big money transfer. Players after all are professionals and their day job remuneration comes first, their family needs are second with club and fan loyalty a distant third. Back to Robin van Persie for a moment. We have been seeing more of the player on our TV screens as he attempts to be the next big pundit. He has however to tread carefully between the Mancs and the Gooners.
There is a very profound video on YouTube which challenges me as a Gooner. Entitled “How Robin van Persie ruined his Arsenal legacy” by UW Football, this traces the hypocrisy that is never forgotten by many fans and leads to hatred of the player. Where do you stand on Robin van Persie? Here is Kevin Campbell’s impassioned plea on AFTV. Yet I find myself aligning with Deluded Gooner here in this clip for a more balanced debate.
Looking back at the pleasure that RvP gave me and thousands of Gooners, I have found my anger towards him has abated. To say that RvP was more sinned against than sinner does merit serious consideration but only perhaps for thirty seconds! Then I am reminded of the one egregious act by RvP which reopens old wounds and settles it for me. Even though I loved the player when he was at Arsenal his goal celebration against us was a bridge too far. It was gratuitous and sickening. It was bad enough that we sold our captain, but to our greatest rivals? Madness. Was this better than him joining Man United on a Bosman? I can see the dilemma for the club. Wenger has let many players leave for free. Yet RvP’s celebration was based on precedent. When one considers ex-players and their goal celebrations against their old club then we see the conflicted state of minds of theses players.
Some players demonstrate class when they score against their former clubs by making an understated display, even if they have been getting stick from the fans. The players who allow this abuse to get to them however then see the need to retaliate against the boos by rubbing in the pain even more. There was no better example than Adebayor’s celebration of scoring against Arsenal when he played for Man City by running the full length of the pitch to stick one on the Gooner support who had been giving him a hard time by insulting him and his family. It was only the fast thinking stewards and perhaps the fact that the most volatile Gooners who were not close enough to the pitch that prevented this encounter being memorable for the wrong reasons.
Is it right for fans to hold grudges against former players? Nothing gives those fans the right to do so but I do understand why they do it as a diehard fan myself. You spend hard earned cash to support the club and that player. You can forgive the poor performances if that player is truly loyal to the club. However when that player has not delivered perhaps the harsh judgment of the fans in the emotion of the moment can be forgiven.
So finally going on down the Arsenal History list of captains, I come to Cesc Fabregas who after a brief spell back at Barcelona, where he failed to make the big time, returned to the Premier League with Chelsea and received a warm but mixed welcome from Gooners. Cesc was an Arsenal fan too, so he deserved a good reception. After RvP came the out of favour Vermaelen. Exactly why Vermaelen fell out of favour with Arsène Wenger will remain subject to speculation. The body language was clear. Wenger did not support his player. Sadly Wenger has sometimes made his displeasure with some players very public. So in drawing this blog to a conclusion, I hope that you have shared my worst fears. Will the curse see Aubameyang leaving the club in due course? We will find out this summer no doubt. My feeling is that because of his age, the player will want a final big pay day, and this is more likely to come from PSG or Spain rather than a cash strapped Arsenal. Yet a mature accomplished striker is worth their weight in gold. So what if he is thirty? Dennis Bergkamp proved how stupid that red line was.
Keep the faith Gooners!
The campaign to save The Gooner for the 2020/21 season has now been launched. If you wish to see the fanzine continue printing after the end of the current season, details of how to subscribe can be found here. If you wish to order with a credit card, go straight to our online store page here. We need to secure 1,000 subscribers by the end of March 29th to continue.
The new issue of The Gooner (282) is on sale now. You can order your copy here (for UK orders) or if you are abroad, order here.