It’s easy to see how we made it to this point.
In June 2003 Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea FC – a club which had failed to succeed in the league since the inception of the Premier League in 1992 – promising to spend a large amount of his Russian millions on building the club into contenders for the title.
Despite some serious cash-splashing in the summer his new version of Chelsea failed to win the league. They were beaten to it by an Arsenal side which was a combination of established superstars and promising youngsters and which finished the season undefeated. Within a season, Chelsea were champions though and Arsenal would have to watch others holding trophies aloft for a while as the world of English football changed.
Around the time of the Abramovich takeover, the members of the board at Arsenal must have found themselves wondering what the future held. They were watching one of the best Arsenal sides of all time romp to the title at White Hart Lane but all around them, money was beginning to rule. Manchester United’s regular achievements on the pitch were very much aided by a large budget and, with income from TV companies doubling with each contract renewal, it was clear which way the wind was blowing.
Arsenal Football Club has always been run with a slightly different ethos to most of the clubs around them, family members having held the reins for many years. Tradition, rather than avarice, tends to be the arbiter of many of the decisions made and so, faced with the choice of ‘beat them’ or ‘join them’ the board decided to go their own way. Blessed with a manager who had not only earned the board’s trust but was a good friend and who clearly had an eye for hitherto undiscovered talent, the club decided to forego the riches of any outside investment in favour of trusting Arsène Wenger and his ability to get the best out of young players to forge a team which was the clichéd combination of ‘youth and experience’.
In an age where it was becoming increasingly necessary to spend big in order to compete, Arsenal had selected an alternative route to success – and in some respects, it was the right choice. Without a benefactor on the scale of an Abramovich or a Sheikh Mansoor and the prospect of more strictly controlled financial regulations on the horizon, a more frugal approach appeared to be a sensible way to go. The fans, for the most part, agreed – an FA Cup trophy joined the others at the end of the following season and The Plan seemed to be working.
Broadly, The Plan was to develop the youth system and to buy cheaply but effectively in order to maintain the levels of success that had become somewhat commonplace since the introduction of M. Wenger in 1996. The construction of the new stadium would incur a large cost up front which would be offset by huge financial gains in the long run – the long run being defined as the time it took for the Premier League bubble to settle down and for the FFP rules to take their toll on those that were bankrolled by the mega-rich – and in the mean time, Arsenal’s place in the hierarchy would be secured by the manager’s astute business sense and footballing knowledge.
But there was a flaw.
When Patrick Vieira left the club after the 2005 FA Cup Final, a trend had begun. For all but one of the next 7 years, Arsenal would lose arguably their best player during the summer to a club with more money than them.
2006 saw the departure of Ashley Cole in a storm over money. Their record goalscorer, Thierry Henry would leave the year after, months after coming within a whisker of winning the European Cup. One of the heroes of the Champions League run that year, Mathieu Flamini, left for AC Milan in 2008 along with goalkeeper Jens Lehmann who returned to Germany. 2009 saw the departure of Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure to newly monied Manchester City. 2010 was the only year that they weren’t stripped of their greatest talent, unless you count the defensive foursome of Senderos, Gallas, Silvestre and Campbell, which many will not (admittedly, Eduardo left that summer but he was never the same player once Martin Taylor smashed his leg in two at St. Andrews).
The year after saw the long-expected return of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona as well as the loss of Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy to Manchester City and today Robin van Persie, scorer of 30 goals in the Premier League last season has announced that he is not going to sign a contract renewal and will almost certainly be sold before the start of the new season.
It is an astonishing list when you look at it disparately like that. A goalkeeper, 3 defenders, 4 midfielders and 3 strikers that would probably prove to be a match for any team in the league today. But why have they all left?
In some cases (Cole, Flamini, Adebayor, Nasri) the motivation has clearly been the irresistible attraction of the crisp banknotes being offered elsewhere. In others (Vieira, Henry, Fabregas, Lehmann) there were more apparently palatable reasons for leaving. But Robin van Persie is an interesting one.
It’s hard to imagine that he’s the kind of individual for whom chasing the dollar is an obsession. He’s been at the same club for 8 years and has only played at one other club in his senior career so he’s hardly a journeyman. Furthermore, he just – and I hate this phrase as much as the next man but it’s true in this case – “doesn’t seem like that kind of player”. He’s also not the type of player who has always had a burning desire to play at another particular club. Nor, for that matter, is he approaching the twilight years of his career and beginning to be ‘surplus to requirements’ or ‘past his best’. He’s a player in his prime who apparently really does “love the club” and yet still he wants to leave.
So we come back to The Plan.
Whilst it looked on the face of it to be an excellent decision both on a football and a financial level, given where the club was in relation to it’s competitors and how it wished to be run, the fact is that it was built entirely on the premise that the core of the team would continue to be of sufficiently high quality to maintain a level of success. By winning the odd trophy here and there, the club could afford to let some quality players leave every so often because by the time they’d gone, there would be someone emerging from the youth system to take their place. For Vieira, there would be Fabregas – for Henry, there would be van Persie – for Cole, there would be Clichy.
However, there was one problem – unless success came thick and fast and trophies appeared in the cabinet with a regular clang, players were going to want to leave. The only way that success of that nature was only ever going to be achieved was to have an entire squad of top class players at the club year in, year out which, in turn, required the best players to stay with the club.
But they didn’t stay. With each passing year, the player with the most potential has had his head turned by the temptations of richer pastures elsewhere and chosen to graze there rather than wait for the current crop to come good. Why wait around for something that might turn out to be good one day when you had been offered something that is good today?
Once the pattern of ‘mildly acceptable season’ followed by ‘lose your best player’ was established, the writing was on the wall. Each season that went by, another player left – whether due to the money or the lack of winners medals – and that just dented the chances of success the next year. Unless we were very lucky and managed to get all of our promising young players and cheap purchases to come good in the same season, this situation was always going to arise.
Today, there are supporters of the clubs with the money that are enjoying the likes of van Persie walking out on Arsenal. There are people announcing that this is now the end of the road for The Plan and that Arsène Wenger has done all he can at the club and maybe they are right.
In the end, finance and capitalism in football have been shown to be more powerful than football itself. It should not be forgotten that football was supposed to be an entertainment, not a feeding frenzy for the most wealthy but with each year that passes, there is only one way to win the English Premier League. You must pay.