Good old Arsène. He’s doing it again. He can’t help himself. Every time he’s interviewed about his achievements the same line comes out.
The pattern of every interview is the same.
Interviewer: You were very successful in the early years at Arsenal, Arsène.
AW: Yes I was. I had a great squad, great team spirit, we won lots of trophies, everything was fantastic. Vieira, Henry, etc.
(This part may go on for some time, with some very easy questions about players, diet, the Invincibles, bouncing back from the rare defeats. If the interviewer wants to appear strong and hard-hitting he might even throw in one about Fergie, or the 50th game, or perhaps the 2006 CL final. Eventually even the most sycophantic interviewer knows he must move on to The Trophyless Years 2006-2014.
But none of them can bring themselves to be direct: ‘What happened Arsène? Why did your teams become less competitive?’
Instead they tip-toe around the subject with questions like, ‘Was it a conscious decision to go from bigger more physical players to smaller more technical ones?’, which is exactly what Richard Keys asked in the interview currently doing rounds from BeIn Sports.
(The question itself is nonsensical anyway – no one was more technical than Vieira, Henry and Bergkamp, the successors were just smaller.)
But the question is asked. Arsène gives a wry smile and says, ‘Well of course we had the stadium (did I mention I built it?) and then’ – at this point if he had more self-awareness he’d wink theatrically at the camera – ‘we had to sell all our best players.’
And the interviewer, who has never looked at Arsenal’s accounts and wouldn’t understand them if he did, nods sympathetically and asks something inane about Mesut Özil being signed or whether only the three richest clubs can ever hope to win the league now. The interviewer definitely does not ask why Arsenal’s cash balance and wage bill both grew massively during the trophyless years.
And Arsene, if he had more self-awareness, would be laughing to himself and winking like Herbert Lom as Commissioner Dreyfus.
Because at this point the interviewer should be saying, ‘Hold on a minute Arsène – can you just name one of the players you had to sell. Just one.’
And what would Arsène say?
Patrick Vieira? Surely not – PV spent about 5 years threatening to leave before eventually doing it. He wanted to go.
Thierry Henry? No, he chose to leave and join Barca in pursuit of the Champions League.
Cesc Fabregas? No, he very definitely wanted to leave.
Samir Nasri? No, he was pretty definite about wanting to go to Man City.
Robin van Persie? Can’t be, because Arsène said at the time it was for footballing reasons. It was actually more for ‘I want a league title and I can see I’ve got a much better chance under Fergie than at Arsenal these days’ reasons, but whatever.
I am running out of ‘best players’ here. Surely not Overmars and Petit, who just thought Barca were a bigger club, or Anelka, whose head was turned by his family.
Ashley Cole? We know why he went.
All these were well before the stadium move anyway, so can’t have been decisions linked to that.
Adebayor? Anyone who claims he was one of Arsenal’s best players needs their head examined. And anyone who turns down £25m for that waste of space would need a straitjacket, but either way the move was nothing to do with stadium repayments.
No, this is just Arsène’s way of saying ‘I remained a great manager throughout my 22 years at Arsenal, I am still as great as ever, but circumstances were against me. The only reason I won no trophies for nine seasons was that pesky stadium forcing me to sell my best players.’
Now don’t get me wrong. Arsenal clearly did build a stadium that cost about £400m, they clearly did take some cash from sponsors that reduced the cashflow a small percentage for several years, and they have been repaying stadium debt at around £20m a year since 2006. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – the gate receipts at the new stadium were £50m-£60m higher than at Highbury, every year since the stadium opened.
Were Man Utd richer than Arsenal before Arsenal built a new stadium? Yes.
Are they still richer now? Yes.
Were Chelsea richer before? No.
Are they richer now? Yes.
Why? Abramovich. Nothing to do with the stadium, just Abramovich.
Was anyone else richer than Arsenal before the stadium was built? No.
Was anyone else richer afterwards? No – not until Man City in 2009.
Is anyone else richer now, apart from the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea? No.
Did Arsenal need to sell all their best players? No.
Ha ha, just chucked that last one in. Maybe if you asked Arsène in this quickfire fashion he’d forget his prepared answer and the truth would slip out.
Ah well. Good old Arsène. He was great for a while, but he’s still trying to fool all of the people all of the time, and that’s too much even for him.