Comment: Arsenal problems extend well beyond failures in the transfer market - from the owners to the academy

The Calvin Report: Enlightened coaches and scouts have been allowed to leave

Michael Calvin
Tuesday 20 August 2013 11:55
There are doubts about the abilities of Arsène Wenger's support staff
There are doubts about the abilities of Arsène Wenger's support staff

Terry Murphy takes pride in representing Arsenal. He dresses impeccably, in club tie and blazer, and speaks respectfully, regardless of whether he is visiting a public school headmaster, or a single mother of four on the 18th floor of a high rise in north London.

He has standards. He has nurtured generations of young footballers in the 40 years since he left Holloway School, where he taught PE, to join a club which no longer reflects his instinctive dignity and innate sensitivity.

He was Arsenal’s youth development officer, and moved into recruitment when his mentor, former chief scout Ernie Collett, was knocked down and killed by a fire engine in 1980. He took pride in producing people, not merely players. His best boys, such as David Rocastle and Martin Keown, matured into measured, intelligent men.

They lived Murphy’s professional principles. These are inscribed on a single sheet of A4 paper, which highlights 32 qualities he believes are found in a successful player. They range from mental toughness to controlled aggression but also touch on more human qualities, such as intensity of commitment and awareness of responsibility.

Murphy is 73 now, and speaks sadly of modern football’s devotion to the lowest common denominator: “It’s not the game that I used to know. I don’t enjoy it so much. The job hasn’t changed, in essence, but the expectations of the parents have changed. Unfortunately, nowadays it all comes down to money. That puts a different emphasis on management, influences the way things are run. It’s the deciding factor.”

He is too decent, too loyal, to draw the timely parallel with Arsenal’s broader problems. He is an unwitting symbol of what the club has sacrificed since its move from the spiritual home, Highbury. The business plan still promotes the mythology of “The Arsenal Way” but it is the institution itself which has lost its way.

The rancour, bile and frustration generated by Arsène Wenger’s inability to invest inordinate sums in a thin, transparently inadequate first-team squad miss an important point. Issues at senior level are symptomatic of the stasis which afflicts Arsenal in a number of critical areas.

The problem begins at the top, with an absentee owner, Stan Kroenke, who sees no reason to be proactive while profits protect an asset which lacks the emotional pull of his other major franchises, St Louis Rams in the NFL, and Denver Nuggets of the NBA. Arsenal are well down a food chain which also includes Colorado-based clubs in three contrasting sports, ice hockey’s Avalanche, lacrosse’s Mammoth, and Rapids, from Major League Soccer.

The predictable, faintly pathetic posturing of honorary vice-president Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, who reacted to the opening day defeat by Aston Villa by claiming she deeply regretted selling Kroenke her shareholding for an estimated £80m, is indicative of a board which lacks dynamism and direction.

Wenger’s reputation as a technocrat is damaged by doubts about the quality of his support staff, and his reliance on long-time ally, Bosnian coach Boro Primorac. Arsenal’s preponderance of injuries brings into question the application of adequate conditioning programmes. Alan Pardew, confronted by a similar issue at Newcastle, responded more decisively, by bringing in Olympic expert Faye Downey to oversee a culture shift in training methods.

But it is at Arsenal’s Academy where the real rot has set in. It was rudderless even before Liam Brady signalled his intention to stand down as head of youth development at the end of this season. Enlightened coaches and scouts have been allowed to leave; three, Shaun O’Connor, Miguel Rios and Ose Aibangee, have subsequently established Brentford as one of the most progressive clubs at youth level.

Results have been abject, and the quality of coaching has declined. Arsenal’s Under-21 team conceded 22 goals in five pre-season friendlies, losing 7-0 to Luton and 5-1 to Colchester United. A clear-out of the older age groups, undertaken by the admirable and increasingly influential Terry Burton, was long overdue.

Brady bemoans the overexposure and overindulgence of young English players, compared to their European counterparts, but has done little to prevent standards of discipline from slipping. Pat Holland, a highly respected coach and scout, lasted only six weeks in charge of Arsenal’s Under-18 squad, where a strong-minded clique resented his adherence to old-school values.

The club’s moral compass is askew. Wenger’s determination to ignore the obvious character flaws of Luis Suarez hinted at his isolation and desperation. He has been further demeaned by the perception of panic, generated by yesterday’s rumble of transfer talk and failed bids.

It is no surprise to learn Murphy has been marginalised recently. His qualities may be unfashionable, but they will never be unworthy. Men like him inform us what Arsenal once stood for, and how far they have regressed.

Millions wasted on unconvincing tosh

Picture the scene: achingly hip advertising types at the Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty agency are thinking blue sky, and the best way to promote the sponsors of the Premier League.

Barclays present them with a problem. Not exactly solid corporate citizens, are they? Football fans might have attention spans of toddlers, but even they remember the banking crisis of 2008. So, what can be done to hide an inconvenient truth? A TV campaign based on what Nick Gill, creative director, insists is “a love story between football fans and the teams they stick by, ’til death do us part”.

Billy Ingham, 86, a rheumy-eyed veteran who never misses an Everton home game, stars alongside a father and son, who support West Ham, and a pair of Manchester City fans. They’re real, but hundreds of extras were used to develop the illusion of authenticity. The pay-off line is “Thank You”. It’s expensive, unconvincing tosh, which begs the question why millions are spent on unsuccessful attempts to make corporate capital out of the fashion for football.

Everyone sees through the pretence. No one thinks any better of bankers, or the vultures of the payday loan industry. Run that up the flagpole, chaps.

Hallam’s lust for life was an inspiration to many

The premature death of Chris Hallam is especially poignant, because of his lust for life. I got to know him in the late Eighties, when what was then known as sport for the disabled was in its infancy. He was a force of nature, determined to be defined not by the restrictions of paralysis, following a motorcycle accident, but by the sudden opportunity of competitive self-expression.

He won the London Marathon twice, and secured medals in swimming and wheelchair racing at Paralympics in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta, but they were not his ultimate achievements. As a coach, and as a man, he was an inspiration to those in danger of succumbing to the darker side of their characters. He made them believe.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments