The first thing to say is that this is an exceptionally good book. Pretty much any stat you could want on Arsenal and the players and managers of the world’s greatest football club is here, along with season-by-season summaries, pen portraits of all the greatest players, numerous quirky facts unearthed by Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews, and more.
The first ‘Complete Record’ of Arsenal was produced pretty much single-handedly by Fred Ollier and published in 1988. A second edition came out in 1990 to include the Anfield title win of ’89, and that was the one I bought and have referred to ever since. It was the Bible of Arsenal books as far as I was concerned, and I have definitely looked at it more than any other Arsenal publication. It’s now close to 30 years old, but fortunately the invention of the internet meant I wasn’t as desperate for further updated versions as I would have been, because the web allowed me to look up facts from more recent seasons, albeit taking a bit more time to gather the information. Things got even easier when I became aware of Andy Kelly’s website, where he was diligently gathering and publishing stats on every Arsenal match ever played. Not only that, but he was filling in missing facts about players and matches from the club’s early years to give an even more accurate record than the great Mr Ollier had managed.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before this stat-gathering was turned into a new ‘Complete Record’ book, but with the help of Mark Andrews and Josh James the book is so much more than the bare facts and lists.
It starts with a foreword from Ken Friar, and as Mr Friar says, the book “covers the detail and the drama… no matter how well you think you know the Arsenal story, I’m sure there is plenty within these pages to enhance the knowledge of even the most devoted of supporters”. That is certainly true. I know Mark and Andy personally and I know the many thousands of hours they have spent researching Arsenal’s history and in many cases correcting stories that were wrong but have long been accepted as fact. (Arsenal got their first jerseys from Nottingham Forest? No – just a ball.)
After Ken’s wise words there’s a brief history of the club spread over five pages, then we’re in to the season-by-season summaries that make up the bulk of the book. This is where the Kelly, Andrews & James version scores over the original Ollier publication: Fred concentrated solely on the stats for each season, while the new version also contains two pages of written history for every campaign, and includes the full league table, another table summarising appearances and goals, yet another with the overall match summary by competition, a pen portrait of one of the important players from that season and a (usually) quirky fact highlighted in its own box. There is a lot of information on every page, but the layout is well-designed and modern, and it’s easy to read without getting completely bogged down.
The authors have chunked the seasons into eras such as the pre-Highbury Plumstead years, early days at Highbury, the Chapman ‘dynasty’, and so on. These are separated by interesting and in some cases rarely seen photographs from the era in question. When you’ve worked your way through these hundreds of pages and finished with the Wenger years there’s a brief but poignant few pages on Arsenal players and staff injured or killed in the two World Wars, then the story of each manager and their career stats. (Andy and Mark have forced me to change my comparison of all managers’ records on this blog a few times, by discovering new information that updates previously-held beliefs about who was in charge and when in the early years.)
Then there are player stats all the way from Adams (T) to Zelalam (G), listed alphabetically but also referenced by number in the order in which they made their debut. We’re getting close to 900 players to appear for Arsenal in competitive matches now – the 500th was Terry Anderson, who made 26 appearances between 1963 and 1965. (I’d never heard of him. The 501st was more familiar: Jon Sammels.)
Then it’s the summarised record against every opponent, then summarised season-by-season record, top appearances, goalscorers, youngest players, goals per season, foreign players, attendances, records at Highbury and the new place… it goes on and on. You won’t be lost for trivia subjects for a very long time. This demonstrates the advantage the authors had over Fred Ollier – a computerised database makes it a lot easier to pull out these stats and summaries than lists on paper. It’s also easier to add to digital records, so I think we can safely say there will be future editions of this book now that the very solid groundwork has been done.
I should also say that the stats refer to competitive matches played in what we now recognise as major competitions, although of course the early team played many friendlies and entered competitions such as the London and Kent cups. This is the only way to keep the stats ‘clean’ but does rather reduce the apparent impact of some of the early players, who are credited with far fewer appearances and goals than they would be.
As I said to begin with, it’s an excellent book – but not quite perfect. (I know from experience it’s almost impossible to produce a perfect book.) Some of the prose is a bit clunky, with superfluous words and phrases (the end of the Boer war “was a boon for the club going forward in the next few years” – time always goes forward, I believe) and even a typo near the start where Arsenal’s greatest manager Herbert Chapman is referred to as “Chap”! Not “a chap”, just “Chap”. A better editor would have sorted these things out.
And a subject never far from causing an argument (with me): what is a major trophy? We are reminded that Arsenal won the league (again) at WHL in 2004, then beat Man Utd to win the FA Cup the following season to make it “five major trophies in five seasons”. On the same page it’s mentioned that the 2017 FA Cup was Wenger’s “10th and final major honour”. These numbers clearly do not include Charity/Community Shields. But turn to page 590 and the Shield is listed in with the League, FA Cup, League Cup and European trophies, rather than in the “Minor Honours” section. To be fair the headings are “Club Honours” then “Minor Honours” rather than major/minor – which I’m sure Andy and Mark will point out to me when they read this!
I must admit to being slightly puzzled by the use of the Adidas Tango World Cup football from 1978 as a motif in the write-up for every season since 1886; it’s not a ball Arsenal ever used and ’78 was hardly a vintage year for the club! Still, as footballs go, it looks quite nice.
The front cover pictures on my edition (there’s an alternative on Amazon) are heavily biased towards the modern era, with Henry, Bergkamp, Adams and Vieira featured, plus Alex James as the sole pre-Premier League representative. The back cover is more balanced, with managers Chapman, Wenger and Graham plus the ’71 FA Cup celebrations (featuring Graham again) and Ian Wright having ‘just done it’. I guess Adams and the Invincibles will sell more books than the relatively ancient history of George Graham and Charlie George, never mind Herb. But like the inside of the book, the cover looks modern and well-designed without being too flash.
Whatever minor quibbles I or anyone else may have with the prose or design, I am willing to bet that the stats are accurate. I know how much research has been done and the amount of care the authors take. Not only does this book replace the Ollier masterwork, it pretty much removes the need for any other general book on Arsenal history. There really is a lot of information, though two pages on each season isn’t enough to, for example, get into the nitty gritty of why Henry Norris was banned from football or the full story of the Clock End clock, but there is always Andy and Mark’s Arsenal History blog for that.
All in all this is a superb addition to the personal library of any Arsenal fan. Well done to all three authors.