What Building the Emirates Really Meant for Arsenal's Ambition

James McNicholasFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2013

LONDON - JULY 22:  A general view of the stadium during the Dennis Bergkamp testimonial match between Arsenal and Ajax at the Emirates Stadium on July 22, 2006 in London, England.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

When Arsenal announced their intention to leave Highbury for a new stadium, it provoked a mix of emotions among the Arsenal fans. 

There was sadness at leaving behind a historic stadium. Highbury was the club’s spiritual home and the site of so many triumphs. It was a ground graced by Cliff Bastin, Liam Brady and Ian Wright. Any new stadium would feel hollow by comparison. 

However, that melancholy was tempered by everything else a new stadium promised. 

It was a statement of the club’s ambition. The new ground was set to be one of the biggest in the country, and certainly the most state of the art. It would immediately establish Arsenal as one of European football’s major landmarks. 

That wasn’t all. There was a business motivation, too. 

It was a move designed to bring Arsenal into a new financial stratosphere, allowing them to compete with Europe’s giants. Highbury’s limited capacity meant that matchday revenue could never match the likes of Manchester United. Adding another 22,000 supporters to every home game promised to significantly increase the club’s revenue. 

However, it always came back to the football first and foremost. The motivation behind doing all this work off the pitch was allow Arsenal to compete on it. 

The problem was paying for the move. In order to fund the new build, Arsenal had to take out a series of loans leveraged against future income. In order to meet the repayments a swiftly as possible, Arsenal entered a period of austerity. 

Arsenal also funded the stadium by doing long-term deals over naming rights and kit sponsorships. While these provided an initial cash boost, they prevented the club from negotiating for almost a decade. 

Arsenal were hamstrung. A literal period of transition from one stadium to another was matched with a period of transition on the field. 

It was somewhat symbolic that the first ever game at the Emirates Stadium was Dennis Bergkamp’s last appearance in an Arsenal shirt. The club was bidding farewell to the days of luxury and superstars. The opponent that day was Ajax, and it was the Dutch club’s world-renowned youth policy that Arsene Wenger would seek to emulate in order to keep the club competitive without over-spending. 

Within a year, Thierry Henry (that great symbol of the Invincibles and the all-conquering Arsenal sides of Highbury’s final years) was also gone. Arsenal built a new side around the teenage midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Arsene Wenger’s hope was to harness the potential of young talents acquired at a relatively cheap price to compete with Manchester United in the short term. 

What the club did not anticipate was the influx of foreign money in to the Premier League. Chelsea were followed by Manchester City in receiving significant investment from abroad. It made them financial power-houses at a time when Arsenal were still practicing prudence. 

There can be no doubt that Arsenal have fallen behind. The decline in the club’s competitive status is underlined by the fact that a fourth place finish is now regarded as equal or superior to a trophy. Arsenal haven’t lifted silverware since the move to the Emirates, but have maintained their Champions League space and thus continued to settle their debts. 

It is often said that winning is a habit. Unfortunately for Arsenal, it seems that failing to win can become a habit too. During this period of austerity, a culture of mediocrity has crept in to Arsenal Football Club. 

It’s possible that in 50 years' time, we will look back on a glorious half-century for Arsenal and think that this eight-year trophy drought was merely a blip. As an Arsenal supporter myself, I truly hope that is the case. 

My fear is that if Arsenal allow this steady decline to be the case, the mediocrity will be impossible to shake. Arsenal need to arrest that decline by making a statement and returning some glory to the club. Winning begets winning. 

Signing up the likes of Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott on long-term deals is a start, but there is more the club must do. The most recent financial results suggest there are strong cash reserves and a healthy balance. Arsenal’s commercial department is working hard to improve the club’s sponsorship deals. For the first time in a while, there are significant funds to spend. 

The summer of 2006 was an important one in the history of Arsenal Football Club, as they finally moved to the Emirates Stadium. Let’s hope the summer of 2013 will be remembered as the time when they started to reap the benefit.