Count Down To Kick-Off: The Clock In Arsenal’s Diamond Level Bar
One of the richest ironies underpinning the world’s wealthiest sport is the way its overall value has risen in apparent equal proportion to the diminution of the loyalty that was once associated with it.
A casual glance across the footballing horizon will reveal seemingly limitless affluence. Clubs that really ought to have gone bust by now appear to be flourishing in direct contravention of the usual rules of finance and no matter how flimsy the foundations, success continues to breed success, making trophy-orphans of any institution naive enough to worry about the pennies.
There’s little to be gained in running the rule over the precariousness of Manchester United’s financial position. It’s well known and widely recognised that for as long as they can continue to squeeze global sponsorship dry, they will continue to behave with some semblance of ‘normality’ as a routine championship again comes their way, floated on a tidal wave of leveraged commercial deals that leave everyone else stranded, looking like mugs, in their wake. The truth is, a long-awaited collapse may never come. For as long as there are sovereign-sized wealth funds looking for a home, Utd’s commercial journey will as likely as not continue, in one form or another, even if the value of its footballing achievements is diminished by the relentless hawking of assets that are now sweating so hard they can hardly see where to tout themselves next.
And if it’s not Man u, then step up to the gold plate any number of oil or oligarch funded enterprises for a simple variation on a theme. Whether Financial Fair Play will cut any diamonds is hard to call. Whether the oil eventually runs out, or the financial bubble within which football currently operates eventually bursts is also up for debate. If not this year, maybe next. Or the next decade. If anything does change, how will we then revisit the on-field achievements of these financially bloated monsters. How do observers value the achievements of Scotland’s Rangers Football Club now that that former bastion has been brought to heel? Can the recently re-written history of Lance Armstrong’s contribution to sporting shame deliver any lessons?
To some extent, it almost doesn’t matter.
The fact is that Man u have this season won the championship at a canter, barely breaking sweat. All the games we have together anticipated, watched and talked and written about all counted, in the end, for very little.
When Arsenal played host to the new champions on Sunday, there was something fairly abhorrent about the whole tawdry affair. Even beyond the self-evident hollowness of the guard of honour – itself a PR exercise which would only have garnered wider comment had there been a failure to deliver it.
Sure, the current banner boy for vacuous disloyalty, Robin Van Persie, tucked away a customary united penalty and Theo later tucked that same symbol of outrageous greed’s shirt into his own shorts.
But what, exactly, was on display, this long sad day.
Pretty much everything except the one thing upon which the bulk of human endeavour rests.
The tragedy of modern football is that the one thing it can no longer afford in any meaningful measure is the loyalty that built it up, from its muddy working class roots into the financial behemoth that it is today.
Loyalty has been driven from the highest echelons of the game and is now as relevant and outdated as the bathing machines that once lined the Victorian beaches of England. Once considered a seaside ‘must-have’, they were quietly, eventually relegated to the back of the beaches and, where they exist at all, are now to be found as beach huts.
Where loyalty is still to be found in football, it too has been relegated to a place on the sidelines, little more than a nice idea living in a distant memory.
It’s not just the players for whom the value – or even the meaning – of loyalty has evaporated in the quest to line their trousers. Few clubs show huge patience with players whose form has diminished through age, injury or other cause. Man u, ironically, are possibly the most ruthless when it comes to getting rid of anyone not performing to the required standards. And with super-irony, Arsenal’s treatment of van Persie on the treatment table now stands out like the sore thumb our memory of him has inevitably become. Because we and the club DID stay loyal to him, not for months but for years and years in the hope he would again come good. But he went bad and then simply went, in a flurry of lies and misinformation. In his particular case, loyalty and integrity were two hostages to fortune he was simply not prepared to save.
The evaporation of loyalty as one of the game’s fundamental building blocks is also leaving its mark on the modern day fan.
Time was that only fans of your opponents would truly wade in to crucify your own club’s players yet our own fans can hardly get to the front of the queue of criticism quickly enough to lay into the latest error of judgement from players who literally sweat bucket loads on our behalf, week in, week out.
Loyalty, far from being a precious commodity, has simply ceased to exist, for the most part. Or at least, this will almost certainly be the case within the next one, two or three years. The disposability of the modern world has embedded itself within the game we all once loved so dearly. That a blogsite such as Positively Arsenal exists as it does in the sea of angst and anger surrounded by the critical masses – that it simply looks so out of place for so many followers – is as tragic as it is telling. Some blame the role of social media in all this but whilst the amplification this brings to the ignorant and informed in equal measure can hardly be denied, simply shooting the messenger is unlikely to change all that much.
Soon, back at club level, it won’t be about ‘building for the future’ but simply about who has secured the best, most lucrative sponsorship deals, the cleanest credit lines, the most generous sovereign-scale benefactor. Those will become the criteria upon which modern ‘fans’ will judge the success of tomorrow’s clubs.
That so many Arsenal fans seemingly reject the current approach of The Arsenal in attempting to build, sustainably, for the future, could well be the final straw that kills off this brave old world.
The off-pitch emptiness of passion and spirit on display at the Emirates on Sunday, the news of Theo’s shocking shirt swap, the mindless media lauding of the Champions – and their way of doing things – all spell, potentially, the end of what Arsenal have been trying to do. The vicious turning, by ‘fans’ on perceived weak links – Gervinho, Bacary, take your pick – the complete absence on the part of so many fans of any kind of loyalty for players old and new – spells a new kind of danger for the club.
Nothing, short of winning the league next season, is likely to prevent Arsene from jacking it all in. I know he’ll give it everything – and most of us reading this will be with him every step of the way – but the odds will stacked against him, one way or another. Sure, he’s fought the good fight against footballing foe on the pitch and the media off it. But taking on the third force – that of his own fanbase – will very likely be Arsene’s very own Bridge Too Far. He simply will not bother and who could – or would – blame him.
With the finest coach in world football gone – and with his lean frame carrying with it the departure of one of the club’s most precious assets – it would seem unlikely that Kronke would do much more than sell out to Usmanov or at least attempt to get some kind of auction going in order to maximise his return.
And with that we will join the mega-clubs and success will be judged on the size of our wealth and our ability to sign this year’s Robin van Persie. An exciting future? Who knows – the fans of City and Chelsea don’t look too thrilled these days? Exactly how proud are they of their respective clubs? Winning zilch despite the mightiest of investments? Perhaps if anything, they are feeling a tad embarrassed at their current failures? All that money spent and they are still, well, rubbish.
And what of us, the Arsenal fans – where will we all be, the season after next?
Will we ever be quite as bothered?
I undertook an official, self-guided, tour of Emirates stadium the day after the Manure draw and it included a visit to the club’s museum. I’d heartily recommend both, but it is a trip of two halves, if ever. The first half of the afternoon inside one of the most famous stadiums in world football, spent visiting the players’ changing rooms, medical facilities, press rooms, going pitchside, checking out Diamond Club level and all the rest of it. None of which will likely change all that much regardless of who owns the club or how it ends up being run. All of it beyond impressive. But sitting on Arsene’s actual pitchside seat was a remarkable experience. He is so close to his own fans he can hear absolutely everything. And always could.
The visit to the museum shortly afterwards was possibly the most revealing of my activities of the preceding two days as exhibit after exhibit of Arsenal greats – players and managers – bore testament to a century and more of the incredible human achievements and results borne from the one thing that is today in such grievously short supply from so many sides.