Time For A Big Name?
We Arsenal fans tend to fall into two polarised categories when it comes to Arsenal's transfer policy. Those of us that thirst for big names and reputations to compete with United and Chelsea's illustrious transfer policies. Then there are those of us who faithfully follow Wenger's doctrine, memorably chrysallized by Peter Hill Wood, 'we don't buy stars, we make them.' (I like to think I'm in a third, separate camp, hidden away in my tent under my sleeping bag with my fingers in my ears singing 'I Don't Care What the Wengerman Says.' On this occasion, I'll play devil's advocate).
Now not even the most myopic of Gooners would discount Wenger's record of buying rough diamonds, before polishing them into shapely gems. That is, before they shed their sheen in the Continental Playboy mansions. (On a side note, has the so called 'Arsenal curse' ever struck anybody quicker than Mathieu Flamini? Within two weeks of joining A.C. Milan, they promptly fail to qualify for the Champions League and now he finds himself excluded from France's Euro 2008 final 23). However, it would appear that the two aforementioned camps have become warring factions, to the point that we seem to believe that the two discourses have become mutually exclusive. They are not. Indeed, putting aside the prohibitive costs of refinancing for Ashburton Grove, Wenger has by no means entirely eschewed the big name signing. Less than two years ago, William Gallas and Tomas Rosicky arrived in N5 with huge reputations. The fact that we cannot afford to purchase the Kakas and Ronaldos of this world seems to have created an almost insular culture amongst some of us, that big names should be avoided at all costs. The former Bank of England club has got us thinking prudently. The club are quite correct to support Wenger's current policy, Danny Fiszman absolutely spot on in his appraisal of continuing to do business 'the Arsenal way.'
There are a plethora of examples whereby 'big names' and big reputations have floundered. Arsenal simply cannot afford to mortgage their future on flops like Shevchenko and Veron. That said, big name players are not always prissy prima donnas or the product of an owner's adolescent fantasies. There is a lot to be said for proven quality as a galvanising effect. When United lost the title in 2002, they bought Rio Ferdinand and promptly won it back. When they lost it in 2004 they bought Wayne Rooney and began rebuilding their current all conquering side. In Arsenal's recent history, having gone three years without a trophy- the suicide inducing, self harm provoking 'predicament' we currently inhabit- in 2001, we signed Sol Campbell and threatened to dominate English football. (We also bought Jeffers, Inamoto, van Bronckhorst and Wright that summer)! I am not entirely sure whether the furore and excitement that permeated Campbell's transfer propelled us to glory, or whether it was just the fact that Sol was an excellent defender who filled the void left by the increasingly injury prone Adams. Indeed, Campbell made an indifferent start to life at Highbury with a series of bumbling displays, before the abuse he endured at White Hart Lane truly shook him from his overweight inertia. Thank you for that Tottenham fans.
In 1995, Arsenal were a club in dire straits. George Graham had been sacked for financial irregularities, Paul Merson had undergone a stint in rehab and an ex Tottenham player had scored a freak winner in the Cup Winners' Cup Final and Graham looked to have frog marched the club back to the mid eighties obscurity that he had lifted it out of. Then we signed Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. The mood around Highbury was instantly lifted. Sure, Platt's tenure was injury plagued and Bergkamp's immediate impact was limited, but the twin signings dragged the club out of the doldrums and a sense of optimism once again pervaded a club in need of a lift. Of course DB10 would go on to become a landmark signing for the club, elevating us to another echelon. Ironically, Platt and Bergkamp would score the goals that fired us into the UEFA Cup on the last day of the season. (Believe me, those who feel winning no trophies this season represents unthinkable failure, you should have been at Highbury that day, qualifying for the UEFA Cup felt like winning the Champions League). Even as far back as the 1920s, Chapman's first act was to sign the reputed Charlie Buchan to get the crowd onside with his vision.
It is often said that signing crowd pleasing show ponies has been the preserve of Tottenham Hotspur. In the summer of 1983, with Arsenal bumbling around the lower regions of midtable, Terry Neill signed superstar Charlie Nicholas, the man who was supposed to lift us out of the abyss and onto the yellow brick road to glory. Indeed, on his debut, Arsenal tried to epitomise this dawning of a twinkling new era by introducing the players one by one to the crowd in glitzy Stateside style. Obviously, Nicholas drew the biggest ovation and instantly he was marked out as different and treated as such. Nicholas maintains that he felt very uncomfortable with this synthetic gesture from the club. Nicholas carved out a half decent Arsenal career, as Malcolm McDonald had before him, but given his reputation and penchant for nightclubbing, the supporters ultimately felt shortchanged. In retrospect, that was harsh on Nicholas, who arrived into a team whose camaraderie was rotten to the core, with Neill failing to control the raucous drinking culture and assuage big egos like Mariner and Woodcock. In fact, Graham's legacy was initially built on clearing these characters out and bringing through young, hungry players like Thomas, Rocastle, Adams and Merson. Indeed, Graham's legacy dried up when he ran out of egos and naysayers to bully and he began to pick on the humble professionals. Nicholas could not carry Arsenal out of limbo in the manner that Bergkamp had.
I guess what I have concluded is that there is a time and a place for this kind of signing. Arsenal are not subject to the kind of internal politicking that have ripped Shevchenko apart. In 1995 Arsenal was a laughing stock, full of journeymen players and suffering an embarrassing administration bungle. Bergkamp changed all that. In 2001, Arsenal were considered perennial bridesmaids, having succumbed to three consecutive runners up spots in the league and lost two Cup Finals. We signed Sol Campbell and added backbone and a winners' mentality (do not underestimate the signing of Gilberto in reinforcing that in 2002). The question is, has the current side reached that crossroads? Yells of 'feeder club' can be heard echoing through Fleet Street. This side stands on the cusp of greatness, but are we missing that statement of intent? For all of my appraisal of Gallas, I would have Fabregas as Arsenal captain in a second if I didn't already think we were in danger of overloading him as we did with Henry.
Whilst the board are correct to wax lyrical about Wenger's policy, do not be entirely fooled. They are businessmen and are well aware of that well vaunted phrase 'managing expectation', the money isn't there for star names. Whilst nobody would quibble with the impact of Sagna and Eduardo this year (we'd all settle for two more like that this summer wouldn't we?) has the time come to once again lay down that marker and protract the club from the bronze to the gold podium? Whilst star signings offer you no guarantees, will that 'wow' factor once again galvanise this teamand erase the memories of disappointment at the tail end of an otherwise excellent season? Despite the arguably underwhelming instances of Reyes and Wiltord as big money signings, I would trust Wenger to find a Bergkamp as opposed to a Bryn Jones. As ever, I'd be interested to know your thoughts.LD.