It’s grim up North London
While in Harry Redknapp Spurs have found a new leader off the pitch, Arsenal desperately need any sort of leader on it.
The past few weeks have witnessed a remarkable inversion in the fortunes of the two big north London football clubs. It’s as if Tottenham and Arsenal have swapped identities in the style of John Woo’s face-transplant thriller Face/Off. Harry Redknapp has transformed Spurs from a comedy club into a half-decent football team. Arsenal, by contrast, have gone from The Most Beautiful Football Team in Europe to a rudderless squabbling rabble.
Last week, I received an email inviting me to join a Facebook campaign group called ‘We believe Harry Redknapp should manage the world economy’. Admittedly there are only five members including me and I only joined to have a pop at the Yids. (Note to oversensitive readers: I don’t mean Jewish people in general, but Spurs fans who have reclaimed the pejorative term Yid as a badge of pride. Jeez, the things an opinionated sports columnist has to do to cover his back…)
But, while Redknapp won’t be managing the world economy any time soon, this Facebook group is a symptom of a newfound mood of optimism among Spurs supporters. If there were such a device as moan-o-meter then it would certainly show a dramatic drop in the levels of whingeing in Haringey and Finchley. There’s already been a noticeable stock-market style collapse in the rate of Spurs moaners calling football phone-ins. Let’s face it, Spurs fans have got to be the whiniest football supporters in London, haven’t they? Either that or there’s some sort of minimum quota of Spurs-related disaffection that all football phone-in programmes are legally required to air.
Why are Spurs fans so moany? I put it down to ‘massive club syndrome’. It’s a chronic condition that afflicts supporters of once-successful-but-now-perennially-underachieving football clubs. Newcastle United are a prime example. They’ve won bugger all for years – their last domestic trophy was in 1955 – but still think they are a ‘massive club’. Likewise Spurs, who were unquestionably a massive club when they won the Double in 1960-61. They were still quite big cheeses in the early 1980s when they won the FA Cup twice and the UEFA Cup. I mean, Ossie’s Anthem reaching number five in the pop charts: you don’t get much more massive than that, do you?
But, since Spurs won the FA Cup in 1991, times have been lean at White Hart Lane. To add insult to injury, Arsenal have left Spurs trailing both in terms of silverware and wealth: according to Deloitte, Arsenal’s raked in £177.6million in 2006/7 while Tottenham had to make do with a paltry £103.1million. And, to make matters worse, ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ are now playing the sort of easy-on-the-eye football that was once the hallmark of Spurs. But never mind how much Spurs’ stock has fallen. Never mind that ‘bigger clubs’ have poached their best players. Spurs fans still think their club has a divine right to success. And, when their expectations invariably aren’t met, the fans moan. And moan. And moan. Ad nauseam.
Spurs fans have stopped moaning for now thanks to the Harry Redknapp Bounce. By contrast, disgruntlement at Arsenal has escalated. Everyone knows that Arsenal play pretty football. The media never stop gushing over Arsenal’s beautiful passing game. But, for some time, there’s been a question mark over whether the Gooners have the mental and physical resilience to win trophies. Or to put it more prosaically, we suspect that they don’t like it up ’em. ‘Eminently watchable, evidently vulnerable’, as ITV commentator Peter Drury put it during this week’s Champions League game against Dynamo Kiev.
Doubts about Arsenal’s mettle resurfaced after league defeats to Hull, Stoke and Manchester City. To make matters worse, Arsenal captain William Gallas publicly questioned whether his young teammates have the stomach for the fight. ‘We are not brave enough in battle. I think we need to be soldiers’, said Gallas. Gallas might be right but, in an attempt to promote his autobiography, he also violated football’s traditional dressing room omerta by lifting the lid on the internal strife within the squad.
Arsene Wenger has now stripped Gallas of the captaincy, but it’s arguably far too late. It’s been evident for some time that Arsenal have been suffering from a lack of leadership. Gallas might have worn the captain’s armband, but his unsuitability for the job was amply demonstrated last season by his sit-down-and-sulk protest after Birmingham were awarded a late penalty last February.
Cesc Fàbregas has been handed the captaincy, but has that solved the leadership crisis? Not according to Tony Cascarino. ‘A new captain? Irrelevant. Wenger might as well have sat in the press conference yesterday and said that Arsenal will be the first team in history not to have a captain’, he wrote in his Times column. ‘Or he could just have plucked a name at random. No one, not Cesc Fàbregas, Manuel Almunia or the rest of the squad, is worthy of the armband. There are no outstanding leaders at Arsenal, no personalities big enough to lift the team to where they need to be,’ (1)
More worrying is the fact that Arsene Wenger, hitherto believed amongst sections of the Arse-fixated media to be some kind of philosopher-king, seems to think that leadership is unnecessary. ‘I don’t believe too much in leadership’, Wenger said last week. ‘I believe more in good passing than a guy who jumps around with the hands in the air and plays the leader.’
Of course, every successful football team needs leadership. Not necessarily one leader, not necessarily the captain, not necessarily even a scary, shouty leader. But someone who can inspire, organise, cajole and lift his teammates. It’s impossible to imagine Manchester United winning the treble in 1999 without Roy Keane’s leadership. As David Beckham put it: ‘The best thing about Roy Keane is that you knew where you stood with him. If you did something wrong he’d tell you but if you did it right then he’d also tell you – in his own way. Every player looks up to him for leadership.’
Wenger’s acolytes will no doubt pore over his latest utterances on leadership, reinterpreting his words as a footballing variant of the anarcho-syndicalist doctrine of self-management. The rest of us know it’s just plain bonkers.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) Arsenal don’t need a captain, they need a leader, The Times (London), 25 November 2008
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