Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday September 21 2006
The current Arsenal squad is something akin to an advertisement for the united colours of benetton. This has drawn derision from lazy hacks and their terrace parrots. What I will attempt to do is deconstruct the arguments most commonly aimed at Arsenal and venture an explanation.
In my opinion, the most distasteful argument is that having a foreign all star XI is somehow disrespectful to English values and heritage. First of all so-called 'English values' is a lazy media buzz term, like 'political correctness.' It is a loaded term that is designed to set off an alarm in one's brain. It also implies that foreign people do not have values and that they are all mercenaries intent on threatening 'our culture.' This tabloid buzz term 'English values' has no actual meaning or substance, it is advertisement without product. Those so keen on spouting this term might like to tell me what 'English values' are and why foreign people are apparently so incapable of them?
These criticisms are not new to Arsenal fans older than myslef. Arsenal was similarly chided in the 70s for it's strong Irish contingent and in the late eighties, Arsenal were again trailblazing as the likes of Davis, Thomas, Campbell and the late, great Rocastle were the objects of similar terrace tittle tattle. There is a strong sense of xenophobia in the current criticisms that, in twenty years time, will sound equally as ridiculous as the former consternation surrounding Black and Irish players. I am 22 years old and these attitudes will apall my children of that I am sure. The same way I ask my brothers in law and my mother just how widespread racism was in the seventies football ground, my children will exhibit the same lack of understanding towards the xenophobia that exists now.
Of course there are also those that internalise the above criticism. There are those that say Arsenal fans are somehow removed from the team because of its multi cultural facets, who are not as acutely aware of the club culture as English patriots. 'How can you relate to them?' they cry. The first thing to say, is that anybody who feels they cannot relate to somebody because they are foreign has my pity. Anyone fortunate enough to witness the tireless work rate of Adebayor, the clenched teeth of Toure or Henry beat the cannon on his chest with ashen faced pride can be left in no doubt that these guys appreciate the demands of the supporters every bit as much as the snarling Keown, the folically challenged Bould.
The sad antithesis to the club values argument is one Ashley Cole. Oh, our Ashley. The boy born into a single parent family in Stepney. The boy who grew up on the unforgiving streets of East London with a cannon emblazoned onto his baby grow. The boy who came through the Arsenal youth team to dislodge Silvinho with his gritty resolve. The boy who helped Arsenal to many a title, becoming a formidable part of the invincibles. The boy who decided to meet with Arsenal's title rivals, three days before a match with Manchester United because he would not be offered £60,000 a week. The boy who refused to take responsibility for his actions, blaming his club and releasing an autobiography scathing them. The boy who married a pop star wearing a white zoot suit and silver medallion. The boy who wrote 'I nearly swerved my Bentley off the road when my agent told me Arsenal would only be offering me £60,000 a week.' Anyone relate to that?
Those that argue the patriation of our squad somehow compromises our club culture have obviously never ventured to N5. Highbury is an area that houses a plethora of different ethnicities, particularly African communities. Given Arsenal's history of diversity, it is perhaps no surprise that Arsenal have the highest non-white fan base in England (8.8%). We are also the second highest supported British club in Scandanavia, most likely because of the successes of Limpar, Jensen, Ljungberg and Lydersen (?!). On that basis, I would say our culture and heritage appear to be in fine fettle thank you very much.
However, that is not to say that all of the criticisms aimed at us are as irksome or ill informed as the ones above. There are those that worry Arsenal are destroying the prospects of young English footballers and stunting their development, thus having an adverse effect on our national team. Personally, I don't care one jot about the national team anyway and I want the best players available for my team, and if that means fielding eleven black, wheelchair bound lesbians from mars, then so be it. But I appreciate that some do concern themselves in these matters. Well, to them I say you should perhaps aim your criticisms at the Football Association. Most are painfully unaware of the restrictive legislation on young English players. A team can only pluck English players for their academies from a fifteen mile radius of the training ground. Now this presents a problem, particularly for a London side. We ostensibly grapple on a congested battle field for young English talent. These restrictions harp back to a bygone age whereby fans demanded that their team be made up of local boys from within the regional area. (See the point earlier, this seems a trivial argument in hindsight, but we're essentially having the same one now, the geographical parameters having shifted). However, these inhibiting rules do not apply in Europe. Clubs with scouting networks as meticulous as Arsenal's can cherry pick the cream of Europe without the need for tape measure and a map of the London Underground. Therefore, a club with a serious youth policy such as ours has to be predominantly foreign. It is interesting that the Spuds like to harp on about promoting British talent, yet Robinson (Leeds), Murphy (Crewe), Jenas (Notts Forest), Keane (Wolves), Davenport (Coventry), Lennon (Leeds), Dawson (Notts Forest), Defoe (Charlton), Carrick (West Ham) were all developed in other club's academies.
The harsh truth is English players just are not good enough at the moment. This boils down to two common deficiencies; attitude and technical ability. Egoism is an unfortunate epidemic sweeping the modern young English player. If one is to look at Arsenal, Cole, Pennant, Bothroyd, Crowe and Bentley are youth prospects who have fallen by the wayside under Wenger due to disciplinary problems. Pennant is a player blessed with a cross better than Beckham. At the age of 15 he arrived at Arsenal under a wave of hysteria, trumped up as the next big thing. Unfortunately, JP began to believe his own press. Not only did he consistently break curfews, turn up late for training and crash team mates cars, but having endured a semi successful loan spell at Leeds, he demanded first team football. Unfortunately, he could only turn out average performances amongst the Gunners literati of stars. Having done nothing to inspire in terms of work rate and performance, he skulked off to Birmingham. At the Brum he repaid Steve Bruce's faith by turning up drunk for training and then reneged on a promise to stay at the Blues if they were relegated as a mark of thanks. Bentley's is a similar situation. Bentley made an inspired debut against Oxford United in the 2003 F.A Cup, all tricks and flicks that left Gooners purring. A year later in the same competition, Bentley's succulent chip over Schwarzer at Highbury had Motson breathlessly exclaiming, 'there's a player in the making here.' However, Bentley's loan spell at Norwich was marked by indifference. A cluster of average performances punctauted briefly by flashes of genius. He reached his nadir when Worthington threatened to send him back to Arsenal for breaching club discipline. Bentley looked to be what I call a once every six games player, much like Laurent Robert. One awe inspiring game followed by five disinterested average ones. His three goals in thirteen months at Blackburn have done little to change my mind. He should have arrived back at Arsenal bright eyed and bushy tailed. When he was told that he would not automatically be handed a starting place ahead of Ljungberg, Reyes, van Persie, Pires or Bergkamp, he asked to leave unwilling to prove his worth.
But it is not just our youth academy that has been marked by indiscretions. Arsene's transfer policy has similarly been blighted by buying British. Have any of his foreign acquisitions taken to the treatment table with the same impunity as Wright, Jeffers, Upson, Cole or Campbell? If one is to compare the contrasting commitment and attitudes of Fabregas, Toure, Eboue, Senderos, Djourou and Song is it any wonder that Wenger goes foreign? Of course, this is not universally the rule. Jose 'wah mummy' Reyes and Emmanuel 'can I come off now?' Petit have committed similar folly. But in general, our foreign kids have acquitted themselves better. This is probably because having repatriated at such a young age, the importance of success is greater. In a strange country and without the temptation of a night on the sauce with their pals, football becomes the primary focus. They are also not given to the same hyperbolic hype as their English counterparts and so there is less chance of head up arse syndrome.
This brings me to my next point. The sad fact is English players are plain over rated. Firstly in terms of price. Had Arsenal bought Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney we would have spent comfortably in excess of £100 million, about a quarter the price of a 60,000 seater stadium (that doesn't write crap autobiographies). This summer, Arsene Wenger expressed interest in young Curtis Davies but was quoted £10m for a player with no international experience and one season in the Premiership. When one considers that Senderos cost £200k, Clichy £200k, Cesc free, Kolo £500k, one despairs.
The other point of consideration is that Arsenal play a high paced passing game and I'm afraid I can think of very few English players with the technical nous to compliment it. If one is to look at the England side's long ball fest at this summers World Cup, you can see Wenger's angle. This comes down to a fundamental problem in the way English youngsters are coached. Most young players are prized for their size and power. Coaching methods usually necessitate giving them a ball, a pitch and leave them to it. In fact, it is quite ironic that those who castigate Wenger for damaging the English game forget how his training methods and dietary regimes have been employed by every other club in England. Unfortunately, this attitude has yet to filter down. We English have an almost endearing arrogance, 'we invented football, we don't nee Carlos Kickaball to show us how it's done.' Racially, we may have invented the game, but as a nation we have stood still as the Brazilians, the Dutch and the Spanish have taken the idea and moved it to new spheres of aesthetic beauty. The same attitude is exhibited towards tennis, cricket, the London Underground. The British trailblazers of the last century have become empirical currency. In the meantime, England have lagged behind, caught in the ghosts of yesteryear.
Thanks to our sensationalist media, these facts are ignored by the hacks of braodsheets and red tops alike. No, Frank Lampard IS world class. Forget that Claude Makelele really does all his donkey work as Fat Frank watches the world go by. Forget Frank's paltry scoring record against the the cream of Europe and England. Steven Gerrard IS world class. Capable of a cracker against the likes of Olympiacos, Luton Town and West ham he may be, but against the likes of Vieira, Keane and now Fabregas neither of these players produce. With Xabi Alonso alongside him, quietly pulling the strings in midfield, Gerrard is able to marraud upfield in pursuit of glory to feed his ravenous ego. Without Makelele and Alonso on the international stage however, both Lampard and Gerrard have been found wanting, outfought and out thought by the illustrious Trinidad & Tobago. Even boy wonder incarnate Wayne Rooney does not escape such slander! Shrek has played in every England defeat of the last two years, failing to score in a competitive match in that time. He has yet to score a Champions League goal since his debut. His suspect temperament cost England inestimably against Portugal, choosing to thuggishly brand the testes of Ricardo Carvalho. Of course, having trumped him up as our saviour, the fact shy media could not then blame Rooney for his cranial lapse. No, the wagging finger and winking eye of Cristiano Ronaldo were to blame. Yes, he forcibly hammered Rooney's studs towards Carvalho. Of course, because everybody has told young Wayne that he is not to blame he is now acting like an unconchanable arse. Threatening to withdraw from the F.A's commercial activities because they had the temerity to suspend him. Rooney is undoubtedly a precocious talent, but his current bout of the big time charlies threaten to derail his career. Indeed, the current spate of autobiographies is confirmation of the English players inflated sense of self worth. Gerrard's laughable and quite distasteful tyrade against Walcott in his booker prize effort shifted the attention away from his mediocre World Cup quite nicely. It also elucidated the extent to which this tireless self promoter will go to protect his celebrity and that of his WAG.
Those of you ready to defend Gerrard by quoting Liverpool's CL success of 2005, don't bother. Gerrard stopped performing the second the group stages were over. Leaving the likes of Luis Garcia, Xabi Alonso and is entirely more palatable compatriot Jamie Carragher (the exception that proves the rule) to lift them through to the final. People credit Gerrard with inspiring the comeback on that magical night in Istanbul when his performance was a damp squib, neutered by Rene Gattuso. It's just that Gerrard happened to score the goal to make it 1-3, and yes he clenched his fist. Oooh, how I tingle in awe. He also passed up his penalty taking responsibilities at 2-3, leaving the burden to Xabi Alonso.
I also find it quite laughable that Arsenal's oft scapegoated foreign charges bare the brunt of this criticism. Liverpool and Manchester United's academies have not produced a player for the national side in eight years or more. West Ham for all their 'we won the world cup' posturing, have a single England international on their books. Chelski have been widely lauded for improving the careers of Frank Lumplard and Joe Cole. Yet tea sipping journalists pay no mind to the once promising careers of Glen Johnson and Shaun Wright Phillips. Fortunately, Scott Parker realised the error of his ways and soon jumped ship. If you throw enough mud some will stick.
Now do not misread me, I am not saying that all English are bad, all foreign are good. The career that potentially lays before Theo Walcott imbues me with vigour and can hopefully go some way to renewing my faith. Similarly, one cannot ignore the follies of some foreign players. The likes of Marco 'me no head the ball' Boogers and Winston Bogarde have at best been mercenaries. But what grates is the myopia of the media and consequently the English public in viewing our own situation with objectivity. The following is an extract from Malcolm X's autobiography, 'You cannot be so blinded by patriotism that you cannot see wrong. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or who says it.' Until English players demonstrate the testicular fortitude or the technical abilities with which they are credited, I'll keep my faith in Arsene thanks.
Date:Thursday September 21 2006
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