Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Déjà Vu

Peter Hill-Wood stepped down earlier this month as the chairman of Arsenal FC.  He was the final link to the era known as the “coming to power” of the club, the period during the 1930s when under Herbert Chapman the club lifted their first trophies.  It was a golden spell which included the only period when we would win the league title three years running.

When Samuel Hill-Wood arrived at the club in 1929, Arsenal had yet to win a trophy, although Chapman had already been installed as manager.  It is rather fitting then that the Hill-Wood family association with Arsenal should come to an end at a time when the club is on the brink of becoming one of the richest and most powerful in the world.  This summer it has been widely reported that the club has a £70 million transfer budget which is the largest there has ever been for our side.

All of the signs suggest that Gonzalo Higuain, a 25 year old striker currently plying his trade for Real Madrid in Spain, is on his way to Arsenal.  The deal is believed to cost in the region of £50 million once his wages and bonuses are taken into account.  The fee of around £22m will become the most the club has ever spent on an individual.

Naturally the news has excited the overwhelming majority of Arsenal fans.  It is viewed as a statement of intent, following years of watching the club sell our best players.  A major milestone that demonstrates we are finally in a position to challenge once again for honours and to rival the larger clubs for players.  The Emirates stadium is almost paid off and a new TV deal commences which has given the club more spending power than ever before.  Everything suggests a new era is beginning.  A fact beautifully epitomised with a changing of the guard in the boardroom and the end of the Hill-Wood’s stewardship of our club.

But this doesn’t feel like a new dawn.  Instead it feels a lot like déjà vu.

Five years ago some Arsenal fans were in mutinous mood.  In hindsight it is probably the origin of the first genuine voices of discontent against Arsene Wenger.  It was to become a movement which would eventually result in Arsenal games feeling like a series of civil wars as fans turned on one other, divided over the future direction of the club.  We had just missed out on the 2008 Premier League title and the theory followed that the only solution was to make significant financial outlays in order to save the club from spiralling into mid-table oblivion.

Unfortunately the club did not start the 2008/9 season in anywhere near like the fashion that was needed to marginalise the doubters.  On Boxing Day evening a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa suddenly felt terminal and the muffled murmurs of criticism at the start of the season had snowballed into revolt as fans demanded that the club invest heavily during the impending January transfer window to avoid Arsenal slipping out of the top 4 for the first time since 1996.

The response from Wenger and the board was emphatic as the transfer record was broken in order to secure the services of a Russian player called Andrei Arshavin.  A player coveted by Barcelona no less. 

Sadly aside from a magical night at Anfield, Arshavin’s Arsenal career will not go down in history with the greats.  An expensive signing which did not deliver should have silenced the fans who clamoured for his signature.  Yet instead this was conveniently overlooked and the voices demanding further expensive acquisitions became louder and louder.  To his credit Wenger faced down his critics each time, often from even more precarious positions than Boxing Day 2008.

I have never subscribed to the viewpoint that Wenger should go, I regard him as being the most important and visionary Arsenal manager since Chapman.  But I recognise that for the first time fans who agree with me are now in a minority.  It made sitting on the North Bank last season at times a torturous experience as I witnessed around me the venom of bitterness that had accumulated against our manager.  There was even one point when I thought he would actually walk away. 

There is little doubt the playing squad is in need of some reinforcements, but I cannot help thinking that the pursuit of Higuain is Arshavin all over again: a big name signing designed to appease disharmony amongst our supporters.  I am firmly of the view that last season it was not Robin Van Persie that we missed but instead the services of Alex Song who performed a rather unsung pivotal role protecting our defence. 

Last season Arsenal didn't have a problem scoring, a fact backed up by the fact that we actually scored more goals than the season Van Persie enjoyed his best year for us.  We did however endure catastrophic disasters in defence, best illustrated in conceding four at Reading and three at home to Newcastle.

It is impossible to justify consuming over 70% of our budget on a player we do not need.  In an ideal world we would have a budget of £200 million and it would be a nice luxury to acquire another striker.  But in terms of where we are now this simply does not represent anything like a priority for us.  We need another defender, a defensive midfielder and possibly another goalkeeper too.

However those signings won’t generate the loud headlines and thus will not appease the voices who demand Wenger’s head on a platter.  So I can see why Wenger is taking this path.  Finishing above Spurs merely served as a temporary ceasefire.  Anything less than a big name signing would have spelt trouble, resulting in the club starting a new season with the fans already against them.

I sincerely hope that when fans wonder why we are still suffering defensively next term, that the boos that ring out at the Emirates are not directed at Wenger.  Or at the team or even the club board. 

I truly hope that the boos are for the fans who collectively played their part in hijacking our clubs rebuilding objectives in return for a few tabloid headlines.

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