It was mid-afternoon on 13th November eight years ago, a few glimmering rays of sun disturbing the dark football-cinema that was the Twelve Pins in Finsbury Park. Lager flowed and Guinness poured and all round was good cheer, for the Arsenal had just beaten that lot from N17 by five goals to four.
We loitered around smugly sipping our pints, basking in the glory of yet another humiliation of the lily-livered neighbours that we love to loathe. My good pal Seb and I had watched the game in the pub, along with a few hundred other Gooners; and when the intrepid travelling Arsenal support returned victorious and unscathed from their brave venture beyond Seven Sisters, we all applauded their efforts and chipped in to buy them a congratulatory beverage or two.
Having casually observed news of goals from the 3pm kick-offs trickling in, it was towards the early part of the evening that serial attention-seeker Jose Mourinho attempted to steal our thunder. Asked about the Arsenal 5-4 spurs scoreline, Mourinho described it as “a disgrace”.
“Five-four is a hockey score,” he (in)famously said, “not a football score.”
Cue a variety of expletives being thrown his way by the red and white faithful. We had seen our team of Invincibles make footballing history the previous season, and were in no mood to let some miserable upstart pour greyness over our latest triumph in the North London Derby. With a team that averaged around two goals per game, who cared if you conceded the odd one?
Like many Gooners I shrugged and laughed off Jose’s petulant jibe, instead turning my thoughts to more pressing matters such as “should I get a kebab or wait until I get home?”
But in the back of my head something was gnawing away, like a microscopic rat that crawls into one’s brain through the ear at night. While on the tube home (with a kebab), as much as I tried to ignore it, I couldn’t shed this uncomfortable, inconvenient truth:
The fact was – I agreed with Mourinho. A football game should not end 5-4.
Now, don’t get me wrong – this is not a defence of the Specious One, or whatever he calls himself. This is not an “Arsene was wrong, Jose was right” argument. God, no. Aside from anything else, Tuesday night of this week was one of many reminders that Mourinho’s own sides can be tactically unstable and defensively frail, even when costing hundreds of millions of euros.
And more importantly – note that in the previous season to the aforementioned 5-4 hockey-fest at the lane, Arsenal had conceded just 26 goals in 38 league games (fewer than any other team in the league). Arsene is by no means the embodiment of the “we’ll score one more than you” philosophy.
But this blog post isn’t even about Mourinho, or Wenger. If anything, it’s about another manager – George Graham.
Like many Arsenal fans, I am essentially a child of the Graham era. I was eight years of age when Mickey Thomas snatched the league title at Anfield, a game I watched on TV in the front room; and as a ten year old I insisted on wearing my Arsenal away shirt on a family trip to a posh fish and chips restaurant on the night that the league title was won before the 3-0 defeat of Man Utd at Highbury.
While I think the argument about footballers being role-models for kids is over-stated, it’s undeniable that in my formative years I was heavily influenced by Graham’s Arsenal. His attitude to his players may have been somewhat harsh, but to my innocent eyes George was a father figure. He was reliable, he was there for you; he was wise; he wore a blazer and made everyone else wear a blazer; he commanded respect. He’d tell you to stop thinking about that girl from across the street and focus on your maths homework. Probably.
And Graham was more than just a distant football coach, to kids like me. He presented an ethical code to latch onto, the primary ethic being: you must win. At school sports days I scowled with contempt at any frivolous, bubbly parent who suggested that “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part”. NO IT’S BLOODY NOT, I’d fume. I lashed out at my mother when she had the audacity to say it was “a shame” that “fun” events like the egg and spoon race were being superseded by proper athletics like the triple jump and 4x100m relay. FUN?! This wasn’t about fun, woman. As far as I was concerned, Fatty from 4C could go and cry in the pavilion if he came last in every race. Maybe it’d teach him to stop scoffing Crunchie bars in the gap between French and Double Geography.
Being a strange kid anyway (you may have noticed), I would sometimes run laps and laps around the local park, so much so that my mum once asked a doctor if there was a risk that I might drive myself to cardiac arrest. I partly did this in the belief that George would approve. On top of winning, other core morals were hard work, discipline and organisation. Entirely oblivious to the booze-fueled misbehaviour in the Arsenal dressing room at the time (let alone Graham’s innovative financial dealings) for me the Gunners represented pride and success and the right way of doing things. Toil and sweat were good.
Particularly from 1992 onwards, once Graham had switched his tactics to a more defensive variety, an additional ethic that became embedded in my conscience was: don’t concede goals. And this whole package of fundamental Graham-ism shaped my beliefs, arguably in life in general, but certainly regarding football.
Having to tolerate constant arguments that Gascoigne and Lineker were “more glamorous” than Arsenal’s players and that London’s weaker club played “better football” than our boys, I adopted the Us Against The World attitude that Graham so successfully instilled in our players at the time. As Nick Hornby discussed in Fever Pitch, Arsenal seemed a more natural home for Millwall’s adage of “no one likes us, we don’t care”. While widely-supported in the playground, the club always seemed bitterly disliked by supporters of other teams. It was Us v Them, and I knew whose side I was on. Football wasn’t about Gazza’s “Cruyff turn” or being awarded Goal of the Month. It was about winning real trophies, getting results. It was about Tony Adams lifting cups, and shoving them in the detractors’ faces.
During an end of year maths class that strangely evolved into a broad discussion about sport, I sighed with frustration as the teacher argued that “there aren’t enough goals in football”. My disgruntlement deepened when he suggested “they need to make the goals bigger”. It’s easy to forget in today’s era of exponentially increasing TV revenue and football’s booming global popularity, but back then crackpot suggestions of “how to make football more entertaining” were commonplace. People would seriously promote the idea of Americanising the sport, such as converting a game into quarters or rebranding teams with their nicknames (eg. “And the Eagles kick the third goal of quarter three! Ferguson is fuming with his Red Devils on the touchline!”)
Predictably, I despised all this nonsense. There was nothing wrong with a good 1-0, I argued until red in the face. Football was not about smiley, fun times, gasping with amusement as someone did a bicycle kick onto the cross bar. It was serious stuff. Graham had nurtured me like a child raised on the early nineteenth century Scottish highlands, used to ice cold baths at 5.30am and grateful for a hot dinner once a week.
It was this Presbyterian tone that gave me an inherent lack of comfort with anything too “fun” and relaxed when it came to football. Even well into Wenger’s reign, when sensationally-exciting football had become the norm, I was (and still am) restrained from being able to fully enjoy high-scoring, open matches (such as the ones that end 5-4, for example).
Like a puritanically-raised young man being struck by pangs of guilt while a busty blonde strokes herself against his awkward frame in an Amsterdam strip joint, I am incapable of kicking back and enjoying any footballing action that isn’t serious and disciplined.
Don’t get me wrong – I love flair players, and idolise attackers (Limpar, Wright, Bergkamp, Henry) far more than steady centre backs. Yet when I read about how Garrincha would dribble past a player, and then stop, and then dribble past him again, I can’t help but think “NO! NO SHOWBOATING AT 0-0! JUST KICK IT IN THE NET!”
The above, I must confess, is somewhat exaggerated. But the point is this: many Arsenal fans these days, like me, grew up under the Graham era. While some in Britain have suggested that “we’re all Maggie’s children now”, in Arsenal terms I sometimes think that we’re all Graham’s children. Despite the revolution that Wenger – a greater manager than GG – has led, there are still undeniable lingering traits in the fanbase from the earlier reign.
We like good defending. And it’s no coincidence that after the first two games of the season, while many in the wider footballing sphere were focusing on Arsenal’s lack of goals, a notable number of Gooners were welcoming a couple of clean sheets. And with five games of the season now gone, discussion over the apparent improvement in the team’s defending has flooded the blogosphere and the pre- and post-match pub chatter.
Following the 2-0 win at Anfield, the Mirror led its Arsenal column with an investigation by John Cross regarding changes that Steve Bould – a bastion of the Graham era – has brought to the team’s defensive training techniques.
Meanwhile even this defence-obsessed blog decided to interpret new attacker Santi Cazorla’s influence with an observation about how it has perhaps affected the team’s defending.
And one of our modern day centre backs, Tommy Vermaelen, has spoken out about the alleged change in defensive approach: “I think you can see, particularly from the away games at Stoke and Liverpool, that the whole team – not just the defence, but every area – is working really hard at shape and organisation,” he told Arsenal dot com. “It’s one of the main aspects of football, and we’ve been putting a lot of effort into getting it right.”
With two extremely tough-looking games coming up, during which our boys will face hundreds of millions of pounds worth of attacking talent, I’m loath to be too premature in heralding a change in Arsenal’s defending capabilities. While the team has yet to concede a “normal” goal (one coming from an individual howler, the other from a dubious penalty) there have been some notable wobbles and lucky escapes, particularly in the second half against Montpellier.
But one improvement that I think it’s fair to note is a visible increase in how much the players care about stopping the opposition. I have always despised watching teams (particularly Arsenal) conceding goals easily, with players failing to take responsibility to stop the opposition and then almost exhibiting a shrug when the ball hits the net. The visceral disgust at Denilson’s failure to track Wayne Rooney in that home Champions League defeat is a good barometer of the degree to which, as a fanbase, we care about this stuff. We don’t expect perfect defending, and we don’t want to support a parked bus. But we do want our players to fight to stop the opposition from scoring, and to at least look like they know what they’re doing.
Last season Arsenal made more errors leading to opposition goals than any other team in the Premier League (according to @orbinho), conceding 49 goals in 38 games – more than Sunderland. The previous year wasn’t much better, as Arsenal conceded 43 goals – as many as Fulham.
Like many Gooners, I struggle to maintain hope for the team when goals are being leaked so easily. It’s hard to give each attack one’s heartfelt support when you suspect that the opposition could just go down the other end and get another one back. This, I feel, has been a large source of disillusionment to some Arsenal fans in recent seasons, as the rate of goals conceded rocketed. Hopefully, touch wood, this trend might now be reversed.
While many people in the UK don’t like being seen as one of “Maggie’s children”, so being forever associated with Graham’s reign won’t be unanimously appreciated. But our enthusiasm that greets each new, solid performance is tangible. I, for one, am happy to admit that I’m praying that the improvement in defence is here to stay, and not just an early season blip.
And while we’re at it, let’s bring back those blazers too.