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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