Sam Wallace: Arsenal's lack of success is scarcely a drop in the ocean


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The Independent Online

"Arsenal proved to be no bubble easily pricked ... a quarter of a century is an ocean of time in which continually to succeed, especially in the jungle of modern football where triumphs usually have lasted overnight and where old idols have been swiftly torn down."

It reads as if it could be a contemporary judgement but it comes from a wise little book, Soccer: The World Game, A Popular History by Geoffrey Green. He was not only football correspondent, but also cricket correspondent of The Times. Try doing both jobs these days. Green wrote these words in the revised edition, published in 1956.

Then, Arsenal were experiencing a relatively lean time, having recently come out of a successful post-war period, the second in their history, under Tom Whittaker, whose teams won two league titles and an FA Cup. It was the first great era in the 1930s, begun by Herbert Chapman, which encompassed five league titles and two FA Cups, about which Green is most effusive.

Fifty-five years on, Green's words speak to us now with a surprising prescience. He even anticipates the rise of the rapacious football executives of the modern age when he writes Arsenal "were as famous in Hong Kong, in Peru, in Latvia, in Greenland as they were in North London. Clubs, even little amateur growths in villages, copied their colours." Talk about painting the world red.

I found myself reading Green's passage on Arsenal again after Arsène Wenger's team succumbed 4-3 to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday to make it four points from five games. At times of so-called "crisis" the book is a little fragment of sanity amid the on-line clamour to get rid of Wenger, appoint Jürgen Klopp, abandon zonal marking, bring in Martin Keown as defensive coach and much more besides.

If, indeed, we are to make the assumption that Wenger's 15-year era as Arsenal manager is coming to an end, and that Arsenal's current run of six years without a trophy may extend a good deal further, then what can Green's wisdom tell us? That the sensible thing is to put that within the context of the club's 125-year history, rather than join the current rush to declare that Armageddon has finally arrived.

The football supporter is temperamentally bound to view his team's fortunes in stark terms, a condition, Green writes, that seems to have been as prevalent in the 1950s as it is now. Hence the current horror at the prospect of Arsenal entering football's equivalent of an ice age when contrasted with the glory years of 1998 to 2005.

But look at it this way. Arsenal are financially sound and could survive failing to qualify for the Champions League in a way that Leeds United could not. So why is there zero acceptance of the one truth that football has taught us since its 19th-century origins, that success, for the biggest clubs – and many more besides – is cyclical?

Arsenal are fortunate enough to look back upon five roughly distinct periods of success: the 1930s; the Whittaker, post-war era; the 1970-71 Double-winning team; the George Graham years; and, finally, Wenger's three league titles and four FA Cups. The club have adapted to each age of football so well that they have never become stuck in time in the same way as, for example, Huddersfield Town or Nottingham Forest.

For those kinds of club, their time at the top of the wheel may have come but once. For Arsenal, history tells us, it will come again and again.

Manchester United feel like they will be kings for ever more, precisely because the modern, global game seems designed to keep them there. Yet United will fall one day, not necessarily as far as Forest, or Sheffield Wednesday (briefly the golden boys in the very early 20th century) but because there are so many ways you can foul up a football club and so many ways that the criteria for being successful can shift under your feet.

As Green himself wrote in 1956 of Arsenal, 25 years is an "ocean of time" to be successful. United under Sir Alex Ferguson have arguably been "successful" for 21 years (since Ferguson's first trophy at the club) and that feels like it has been for ever. But only because we live so resolutely in the present. Professional football in England is a long game. If you start at the first league championship in 1888 we are only 123 years in. There is still so far to go.

When Green wrote in 1956 it was the first season of the European Cup but, that aside, since then only one competition, the League Cup, has been introduced. If anything, there is less of note to win. Green treats the FA Cup with almost equal reverence as the league championship and we all know attitudes have changed in that respect. There have never been enough trophies in order that every club who thinks they need to win one can do so.

If this is the end of an era at Arsenal, then their despairing fans would do well to remember that few Victorian institutions have survived like England's football clubs. They have outlived the industries and the original communities that gave birth to them and, in a few examples, their popularity has outstripped the creeds of Anglican faith in which they have their roots. They are astonishingly robust.

And if you happen to support Arsenal, then lucky you. Five periods of success, four of them post-war, is remarkable. Just ask Newcastle United fans. What a shame that these great eras have, on the whole, to end so badly for the managers who oversee them. History shows that, for the great majority, success is the exception, not the norm.

"Arsenal are like a unit that polishes its buttons before a battle and even during a battle," wrote Green, who, unsurprisingly for a man of that era, liked to season his writing with war-related similes and metaphors. So, by all means, debate the merits of Keown organising the defence or the club signing a new striker in January or, even appointing Herr Klopp (what Green would have made of a German in charge of Arsenal we can only wonder).

But, when the time comes, please – to borrow from Green's linguistic arsenal – do not forget to carry Wenger out on his shield.