Someone asked me a while back whether Arsenal would have been better off staying at Highbury another ten or 12 years, and be moving now, as Spurs are. I considered this for a few seconds and decided that it was a flawed theory. But, said the questioner, look what’s happened: as soon as we moved the trophies dried up and it became all about money; if we’d stayed put wouldn’t Arsène still be doing whatever he was doing at Highbury, thus almost guaranteeing more success?
Well, no, he wouldn’t. The thing was, there were a lot of reasons why the trophies dried up – including oil money, oligarchs, Fergie, the defence Arsène inherited all retiring, three of the greatest Arsenal players ever in Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira all going – but it’s convenient to blame it on the stadium. In truth the £50m a year extra in gate receipts from a 60,000-seater arena more than compensated for the repayments and extra expenses incurred from a bigger stadium and staff, but Arsène likes to tell everyone that he had to earn an extra £20m a year for the repayments. Why no journalist ever said to him, “But Arsène, the club gets an extra £50m, so when you allow for the £20m repayments, you’re still £30m a year better off” whenever he repeated this has always been a mystery to me.
Moving when we did allowed Arsenal to (on average) remain ahead of Liverpool, Spurs and Everton for a decade, and obviously everyone else bar the three mega-money clubs in Manchester and west London. Meanwhile Liverpool, Spurs and Everton have all spent that time dreaming and scheming about how they would catch up with Arsenal through new or expanded stadiums of their own. They’ve had several managers each, who have had varying levels of success during that time, but without the income of Arsenal it’s been harder to keep their noses in front on the rare occasions they’ve got there. Liverpool and Spurs have won a single League Cup each since Arsenal left Highbury, and Everton have done nothing better than the giddy heights of fifth in the table.
Of course it is possible to have a great season or two on a shoestring budget with an inspirational manager and a squad who give their all and are coached in a way that gets the very best out of them, but it won’t last. Leicester were a one-off, so the hope for the likes of Liverpool and Spurs has been that some level of success – the odd trophy or a couple of Champions League seasons in a row – brings in enough additional money to buy more success and maintain a new-found level on a par with at least Arsenal if not Chelsea and the Mancs. For quite a few years it didn’t, which is why they became desperate for the boost of additional stadium income Arsenal have been enjoying since 2006.
All this assumed that Arsenal would continue to operate at the same level both on and off the field. Financially there is little issue – Arsenal still have a bigger turnover than the chasing clubs. On the pitch Arsène Wenger’s consistency in reaching the top four come May became legendary, and eventually became taken for granted. But his influence ultimately waned to the point where, as for the last two seasons, a bigger budget than Liverpool and Spurs is not enough to stay ahead, while the three richer clubs have somewhat stabilised and can’t be relied on to have a poor transitional season. The new coaches at Liverpool and Spurs are better than the previous ones, while Arsène’s methods are stale and predictable. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Arsenal and Arsène enjoyed that additional income for a decade, and however much you love Wenger, Arsenal’s average league position has undoubtedly been helped by the club’s income almost as much as the manager. In fact the gap between Arsenal and Spurs in terms of turnover and wage spend in 2017 was bigger than it was when Arsène was winning league titles.
So yes, Arsenal were right to move when they did. The relative success (judged by average league position) since 2006 would have been a hell of a lot harder to achieve at Highbury. Unfortunately there are no trophies for average league position, leaving the majority of fans longing for a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows rather than the steady third or fourth place and a last-16 Champions League exit. Yes, Arsenal fans have been spoilt compared to many others, but human nature is for most people to still want more. The trouble is that the financial gap between Arsenal and some of their poorer rivals is closing and the coaching gap is already gone. It’s too late for Arsène to do anything about it now. Let’s see if the next man can.