The State of the Arsenal Nation – 20 years on

Online Editorial: Reflections from retiring editor Kevin Whitcher

The State of the Arsenal Nation – 20 years on

FA Cup Final Win – A nice way to finish. Photo - Offside

As of midnight tonight (Sunday 9th August), I am officially handing over the reins of Gooner editor to Layth Yousif, although in reality, Layth has been producing and organizing the bulk of the content for the website for a few months now, with only the occasional offering from my good self. I stated when I did my piece on the FA Cup final victory last weekend that I would do one more editorial before hanging up my keyboard, and this is it – a reflection on the changes at the club in the 20 years since I became editor.

In August 2000, Arsenal were competitors. They should, really, have repeated their league and FA Cup double of 1997-98 in May of 1999, and the following season, were defeated on penalties in the UEFA Cup Final. My first season succeeding from Mike Francis saw the team undeservedly beaten in the FA Cup Final by Liverpool, but good times were to follow. Five trophies in four seasons, including another double and the Invincibles season, and then a run to the Champions League final as the club said goodbye to Highbury.

So we were all set for the future. A new stadium meant a huge increase in revenue, but success proved elusive. The FA Cup came to mean less and less as the prize money for winning the trophy and the broadcast revenue was dwarfed by the Champions League and the Premier League. Although I have much enjoyed the four FA Cup wins since Arsenal did move to the Emirates, it has not translated into them challenging for the league title at the business end of the season. Things have declined to the point that at the end of this campaign just finished, qualifying for the Europa League was cause for celebration.

On one level, credit is due to Arsene Wenger for keeping the club in the Champions League for all those years, but when I look back on it now, after that run in 2006, were Arsenal ever really competitive in the tournament? Results suggest not. It was enough to take part and feed from the money trough. In the Premier League, there were seasons when the Gunners were in a really good position to challenge, but when the rubber hit the road in the culminating weeks of the season, the wheels repeatedly came off in the (from memory) four seasons when you could say that Wenger’s teams were in contention with two thirds of the season gone.

So gradual decline was tolerated and complacency allowed, as long as the balance books were healthy. It became obvious to even the most loyal that Arsene was a busted flush when his team was knocked out by lower league opposition in both domestic cups in 2013, alongside the numerous humiliating home and away defeats to the teams that were winning trophies as Arsenal seemed content to finish fourth. Granted, both Chelsea and later Manchester City were fortunate to be bought by owners willing to fund the strengthening of their playing squads, but let’s not pretend Arsenal did not have money. They did, but it was spent badly.

I’d pinpoint the departures of David Dein, Keith Edelman and the death of Danny Fiszman as the turning points in the way the club was run. All added something to the club – even if Edelman didn’t really give a fig about football. With hindsight, there is no debate that Ivan Gazidis proved a disaster, finally recruiting people to do the work required to aid the club years too late, and a man who was full of soundbites, but nothing by way of delivery. The combination of the award of Mesut Ozil’s final deal and the recruitment of Unai Emery meant he left the club in a right mess, the one competent individual he hired (Sven Mislintat) forced out after Gazidis left for Milan.

Due to Daniel Fiszman’s long-running feud with David Dein, on his deathbed he made the disastrous decision to hand the club over to Stan Kroenke, so as to assure there was no chance of Dein ever returning. Now Dein is no saint, but I’d rather have someone running the club who cared deeply about it, as Dein does. Stan Kroenke has had effective control of Arsenal since 2011, and significantly, in this period, the club have really seen their status slip away, not helped by Arsene being allowed to remain for far too long.

So where are we now? Fighting against the odds and hoping that Mikel Arteta does prove to be the next Pep Guardiola and that he remains at the club if he is. Spending decisions needs to be made very wisely, and will hopefully not be compromised by the influence of agents close to the executive team. Money though, is a real problem, as demonstrated by the news that 55 staff will be laid off by Arsenal. It says a lot about the game that a couple of months’ wages of one club employee could probably cover the annual wages of all of those who will lose their jobs. And that is because the increased money that has flooded into the game has largely flooded out into the bank accounts of players, managers and agents. Successful clubs simply operate around the break even model as they try to match their rivals to secure the best. Arsenal often made profit whilst they were sliding out of contention, but did still spend significantly. Either the players that were secured weren’t up to scratch or there was a failure to get the best out of them.

And it is here that there is hope. Mikel Arteta has shown he can produce something greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe not consistently, but just knowing that his team can beat the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea means that Arsenal can go into matches against such opposition in the future with greater self-belief than they have enjoyed for a long time. It provides a platform, as the players buy into Arteta’s methods, and will be more willing to bust a gut for the head coach knowing there is good reason to do so. It’s become clear that those who are not fully invested in what he is doing are not going to play a part. Results will mean that this policy is backed by the fans, not that they can express any opinion that Arteta is likely to be aware of for the time being.

Additionally, the coach is presumably a part of the decision making process regarding who joins and who departs his squad. It does feel like he played a part in the decision to give David Luiz an extra year. It will be interesting to see who is recruited before the next season gets going in September. We’ll get a better idea of Arteta’s abilities as he gets a full season to shape his team.

Football is about hope, and in truth, an element of this has been sucked out of Gooners by how their club has slid out of contention under an absentee owner. Stan Kroenke took the decision to pay off the stadium debt to (hopefully) assist the club financially, rather than extract money from it at a later stage. Time will tell, although certainly the American is not trusted.

The FA Cup win has returned optimism, as have the other significant victories in the closing weeks of this protracted season that still continues in UEFA’s competitions. But of course, we have been here before – in 2014, 2015 and especially 2017. It didn’t work out then, although that was when Arsene was no longer the manager that he used to be.

So, my 20 years started with a spell that became as good as it gets for a fan (excepting that 2006 final – to win that would have topped it off nicely), followed by a period of uncertainty, culminating in the Kroenke takeover, the Gazidis years and – aside from some nice FA Cup Final days out – very much sausage compared to the caviar of Arsene’s first decade.

But the hope is back that the club can buck the odds, as they did memorably under George Graham. And I look forward to experiencing whether or not they can as a supporter, rather than a fanzine editor. Thanks for putting up with my ramblings for all these years, and for the kind words expressed by many at the news of my departure. But this ‘king’ is dead. Long live the new one – I hope he sees as many trophies in his first five years on the editor’s throne as I did in mine.

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10
comments

  1. Seven Kings Gooner 1

    Aug 16, 2020, 13:38 #117057

    Very good piece Kev - with no hint of sycophancy, you tend to view all things Arsenal pretty close to most of the Gooners I speak too, you certainly saw Wenger's failing powers very early on in the proceedings. Arteta does give hope but it is the money that will decide the future of Arsenal and the longer fans are away from watching football the worse it will be for 80% of Premier League clubs. Thanks for doing a great job Kev, your articulate comments helped me through the madness of Arsene's last years at the club, I shall really miss your "Talking Reds" column which always opened every Gooner issue. Good luck to you and your family and all the best for the future and everything you undertake.

  2. RobG

    Aug 15, 2020, 16:23 #117054

    Nice conclusion Kev'. And very well done for your 20 years at the helm. As you say. much of it has been memorable. Arteta does give us some hope but - as you say - we are very much back to a GG time where we are trying to catch up with bigger boys above us. George did - and we can only hope MA does the same. Hope fuels us. Look forward to still hearing you on the Podcasts - Cheers !!!

  3. GoonerDan72

    Aug 13, 2020, 8:40 #117047

    Hi Kevin. It has been a pleasure following you and reading you here. Your analysis always seemed to hit the nail on the head for me (I believe you even wrote after the Baku debacle that we should already have got rid of Emery). You will be sorely missed, but I think it is fair to say that over the last 20 years we have had more success than likely we could have dreamed of. Good luck in all you do going forward

  4. Perryashburtongroves

    Aug 12, 2020, 18:01 #117046

    Kevin, thanks for all your hard work over the last 20 years. It has been a pleasure to read your pieces over those two decades. I remember that summer of 2000, when you started, as a period of hope and nervous excitement, we had moved into a new era as a club and with the signings of players like Pires and Lauren and Wiltord to supplement Henry and Bergkamp and Vieira, it felt inevitable that we would win titles, go on to dominate English football and eventually win that European Cup. Those first few years if the new century were fun, we were winning our way, the right way and it was great being an Arsenal fan. We never really went much further though and the last 15 years have felt like an endless spiral of lowering standards appalling mismanagement. I really don't know where we are right now, which is such a shame, considering where we could have been and what could have happened. The fanzine and this website have always been a fun way to pass the time and to revel in the wins or share the pain. Thanks again for all you've done for the fanzine and the fanbase. Best of luck in whatever comes next.

  5. Graham Wilkinson

    Aug 10, 2020, 18:24 #117043

    Thank you for your wise stewardship of The Gooner, Kevin. I haven't always agreed with you but you have always put forward your points in a cogent, measured way and encouraged debate. You write well and know your facts - two things I hope Layth will aspire to. Meanwhile, I hope that your career as a therapist flourishes and that you can continue to enjoy watching Arsenal. Let's hope there will be good years ahead.

  6. Exiled in Pt

    Aug 10, 2020, 17:01 #117042

    Well done Kev, always enjoyed your editorials and hopefully watching as a fan again might be more enjoyable than it has been for the last few years !! As you say lets hope Layth's first five have the same trophy count ..

  7. Redshrtswhitesleeves

    Aug 10, 2020, 15:59 #117041

    Best wishes Kevin, I’ve really enjoyed and respected the fanzine and your editorials and podcasts over the years. Yours has always been the voice of sense and reason in an increasingly hyperbolic and deranged world. Who knows what the state of the club will be like 20 years from now, I fear the worst with the current owner seemingly bent on ruining everything that was ever good about us! Doesn’t seem to be much activity in the comments anymore, good to see you’re keeping your eye in Ron and hope all you other guys are keeping well

  8. itsRonagain2

    Aug 10, 2020, 14:01 #117040

    Hi Kev Good stuff as usual there. Its been a real roller coaster hasn't it. Your stuff has been great though throughout. All of the very best from me too Kev. Ive enjoyed yr offerings over yr period at the helm there. Its massively different club now isnt it, so you seen through a great big sea change at N5. Be proud of all of your efforts.

  9. Rocky the King

    Aug 10, 2020, 9:06 #117036

    A wonderful walk down memory lane. I also would like to offer my best wishes and thank you not only for your stewardship but also putting up with mouthy online contributors like me. Gooners are still on the roller coaster of good cop, bad cop. I tipped Arteta in one of my early blogs when it was unfashionable and Freddie Ljundberg was in the hot seat. He can deliver and I am looking forward to him winning with his own squad. Stan Kroenke aa you say may not have Arsenal’s interest uppermost, but he made no secret of the fact when he first joined that this was a business opportunity. He has never professed to be a fan in fairness to the man. The private ownership thing might well be a vehicle for collateral for his bigger franchises across the pond, his stadium plans for NFL and others mean Denver Sports Enterprises could raise capital using the stadium, only time will tell. Enjoy your retirement and thank you once again for your wonderful actions in allowing dissenting fans to have a polite platform free of abuse, with thoughtful debate. Keep safe during this pandemic!

  10. The Fishpie Gooner

    Aug 10, 2020, 6:37 #117035

    An amazing 20 years indeed Kevin . All I would add is that despite the decline over that period, it saw Arsenal achieve its most consistent Level of high league finishes in its history, mostly in the top 4. Better than any 20 year period before. I bought a fair few copies of the Gooner over that time, enjoyed your podcasts, and agreed with every question you ever asked the Board at the AGMs. Even had a meal with you and the AST boys once after a meeting. So thanks for everything Kevin. All the very best.