It's "Inside Arsenal week" at Bleacher Report, and we continue on Wednesday with insight from a club employee you're unlikely to have heard much from before—historian Iain Cook.
Bleacher Report: Were you always an Arsenal fan?
Iain Cook: Very much so, although I’ve seen so much that you learn to step back a bit. But I’m still a big fan.
B/R: What’s your earliest memory of being an Arsenal supporter?
IC: I remember my first trip to Wembley. It was 1969, and my dad took me to see us play Swindon in the League Cup final. We hadn’t won a trophy for the best part of 16 years at that time. Swindon were a third-tier side, so everyone thought that we were pretty much on to a winner, and of course, we managed to lose that. I don’t think I spoke for about three days afterwards! Not a good first experience of Wembley and I learnt not to take anything for granted.
B/R: That sounds relevant... so how did you come to be club historian?
IC: The story begins way way back! I was always a huge fan, and I began working for the club in 1979, straight from school. I saw an advertisement for a box-office junior, so that’s where I started. Two people interviewed me—Ken Friar and David Miles—and they’re both still here!
I eventually worked my way up to Box Office assistant manager in around 1992. At that point the club were looking to expand and redevelop Highbury in the aftermath of the Taylor Report. Part of the plan was to put a museum into the North Bank, and I was asked to set it up. It went from there, really.
Towards the end of our time at Highbury we were very busy doing tours. My legs worked a bit better in those days and I was one of the tour guides. When we moved to the Emirates Stadium, I did some guided tours initially but they’ve been headset tours for the last two years now. These days, I tend to be a bit more office based!
B/R: What does your role actually involve on a day-to-day basis?
IC: I’m based over at Highbury House, the club’s office building at the Emirates Stadium site. I look after a lot of things still connected to the tours and deal with all the post and enquiries from people with queries about the club’s history. We frequently have people writing in to ask about family members who have represented the club in some form. In many cases, sadly, we can’t find the evidence. Our records from the early days aren’t as great—it was just a group of lads playing football; they weren’t worried about me doing this 120 years ago! Nowadays, of course, it’s all computerised.
B/R: How do you go about finding people?
IC: We’ve got a huge archive of books and material. There are club programmes as well which go back to the turn of the last century. In the wartime period, those were just single sheets due to the shortage of paper. There’s not a huge amount in those, but invariably, you can find a way to check information.
We can find something in about 50 percent of cases. It depends: Some of the reserve-team records from the 1920s and 1930s aren’t extensive, and there are almost no youth records from that time. In those cases, Fred Ollier is incredibly helpful. He wrote the official stats book for the club. He’s 80 now, but he’ll literally trawl through newspapers and make notes of goodness knows what to help find people. If you give him a name, he’ll come back with something! We had one the other week—a boy who played once for the youth team in 1926—and we managed to find him! It means a lot to families when we can corroborate a traditional family story.
B/R: What are you working on at the moment?
IC: We’ve got an enquiry at the moment actually about one of our directors—a guy who was on the board throughout the wartime period. We’re trying to find any indication of him—there’s not a huge amount of documentation of that period.
We actually played at Tottenham at that stage, although the club was still based largely at Highbury. Highbury was sort of a "mini hotel" in that period. Billy Shankly actually played as a guest player. He’d come in on a Friday night, sleep in the old dressing rooms, play for Arsenal on the Saturday and then head back to wherever he was billeted ready for the week. Stanley Matthews also played quite a few times for Arsenal during the wartime period too.
Cliff Bastin continued to play for the club. He was almost totally deaf at that time so wasn’t in the forces at all. Despite that, at one point around 1942, the Italians claimed they’d captured him—but he was over here still playing! It was just propaganda, and Cliff popped up in the papers saying “I’m still here!”
B/R: How important is Arsenal’s history to the club’s identity?
IC: Very. You’ve got to remember where you’ve come from, also where you’re hopefully heading too!
When we first moved to the Emirates Stadium, we knew how important it was to bring the club’s history with us, to ensure it felt like home after so many wonderful years at Highbury. We called the process "Arsenalisation," and it has been all about trying to incorporate the history of the club into the "new" ground. I think it’s been appreciated by supporters. We’ve got the statues too—Ken Friar is the latest! Tony Adams was here not long ago and he was a bit worried. He asked, “how many more are they going to do?”
B/R: If they were to build one more statue, who do you think should be honoured?
IC: Alex James is a name who comes up frequently. For someone who retired in 1937, it’s remarkable. He was one of those great talents. You’d imagine he’d be able to cut it in the modern day, although his work ethic might not endear him to modern managers. He’d go out and do about five minutes running and then decide that was enough! You look at what they were playing in—the boots they wore, the ball they were trying to kick—it’s a testament to the natural talent he must have had.
B/R: Do you think the current players have an awareness of the club’s history?
IC: Some of them, certainly. They don’t train at the stadium at all, so probably aren’t quite as engrained in it. Back at Highbury, George Graham would have them come in regularly to the stadium to train on Tuesdays and sometimes Fridays. Now, everything is done up at Colney and they only come here for matchdays. We have a big core of British players at the club, though, and a number of players who have been educated here from the Academy up. They make sure the whole team has a sense of the Club’s history and what it’s all about.
B/R: Arsenal are currently enduring a wait of almost nine years for a trophy—where does that stand in the club’s history?
IC: We’ve been very lucky. If you go right the way back, the club went 44 years without any trophy at all. However, since the first trophy in 1930, we’ve been pretty successful ever since. 1953 to 1970 is the only major gap, when my dad took me to the cup final!
B/R: How will this post-Highbury period be regarded in years to come?
IC: We obviously had that wonderful period in the couple of years before moving to the Emirates, which actually prompted the move. But the landscape has changed a fair bit in recent seasons. When Arsene Wenger first joined us it was principally just United we were up against, but since then, Chelsea and City and now, of course, Liverpool have emerged. But we managed to stay consistently competitive in a time of limited financial means, in an increasingly competitive field, so perhaps that will be the legacy of this period.
There are only four trophies to win at the end of the day. This is just one of those periods that, as a historian, you come to expect. You can’t win all the time of course, and these things always go in cycles. Football’s like that.
B/R: Is the current manager Arsenal’s greatest?
IC: In terms of longevity he’s definitely the greatest. We’re incredibly lucky to have had some great managers. Certainly, no manager has won more than Arsene, who currently has seven trophies. George Graham won six. However, in Herbert Chapman’s day, there were only two major trophies to compete for. Had there been European football to contend for, his team would have had a good squeak at winning it.
I’d say those are the three names I’d put forward. Arsene and Chapman are very close—both very innovative—but George Graham is who I’d pick as my favourite manager. I remember him playing as a kid, and when I first started working here it roughly coincided with him taking over as manager. We knew quite a lot of the players quite well then, so George was my favourite manager in that respect. Between Chapman and Wenger it’s a very close call as to who was the greatest—it’s a personal decision really.
B/R: As good as Wenger has been, he can’t go on forever. We’ve seen Manchester United struggle with replacing Sir Alex Ferguson. Is there precedent for Arsenal struggling to replace a successful manager?
IC: You’ve just got that one period through the mid-50s when the club had a few managers come in who unfortunately couldn’t follow on from Tom Whittaker, who died while holding the position. A number of guys came in, including Billy Wright, but the club weren’t as pre-eminent as they’d have hoped. And to make it worse, Spurs won the league in ’61 and ’62! Bertie Mee took over and changed things around. He was actually the physio but became manager in 1966. The club took a big chance and it worked out incredibly well. Imagine giving the job to Colin Lewin now!
B/R: There are three famous anniversaries for Arsenal this year. It’s 25 years since Anfield ’89, 20 years since Copenhagen ’94, and 10 years since The Invincibles. Can you remember anything as dramatic as that night at Anfield?
IC: No, definitely not. We were working that day so couldn’t go to the game. We waved the coaches off in the morning and hoped for the best. At the end of the working day, we set up a big screen in the offices above the stadium and went up there to watch the game.
As the night unfolded it got more and more exciting. When we finally won we stayed in the stadium and there was a street party unfolding beneath us. When the coach came back the players weren’t there—they’d been dropped at the training ground. It was just a couple of kitmen, but they were greeted like heroes. It was like an impromptu Brazilian carnival.
At that time the East Stand was being renovated, so there was scaffolding all up the front of it. There were all people singing on the lower parts, but an Australian boy climbed up to the very top. When he arrived at the top, he panicked—I think he’d had a few drinks—and froze. I think he eventually had to get rescued by the police.
It was just one of many great evenings I was very lucky to be involved with.
B/R: Is the Unbeaten Season Arsenal’s greatest achievement?
IC: Possibly, yes. We almost did it shortly before! George Graham had a team which only lost one game, and we had another team that only lost at home but was undefeated away. Arsene Wenger had said it was possible and everyone laughed at him. The guys we had at that time were just great, great players—again, as fans we were lucky to have a team who gelled so incredibly well.
B/R: The FA Cup Final is coming up. It seems Arsenal have a particular affinity with that competition?
IC: This is our 18th Final, which is as many as Manchester United have had. Our record at Wembley is seven wins and six defeats. At Cardiff we did much better: three wins and one defeat in the six years there. Overall we’ve won 10 finals and lost seven thus far. If we win it this time, we’d equal United’s 11 FA Cups and become the joint most successful team in the competition’s history.
B/R: So the omens are good?
IC: We’ll certainly be favourites but my first experience of Wembley was against Swindon, so favourites means nothing to me—it’s just what happens on the day. You can normally tell with us in the first 10 minutes. I went to both the Ipswich and West Ham finals in '78 and '80 and you could tell early on we just weren’t really at it. That’s just the way it goes sometimes on the big occasion.
B/R: Arsenal fans will hope this first trophy could kickstart a successful era... does silverware tend to arrive in batches?
IC: Yep. I’d say it certainly does. When Herbert Chapman joined in 1925, he said it would take him five years to win a trophy, and it was almost literally five years to the day he picked up the FA Cup. In the next 10 years, the club went on to win the league five times, and the FA Cup twice. Historically, it does seem to come in little groups. Let’s hope it happens that way again.
This interview was conducted by Bleacher Report UK in partnership with Arsenal FC.
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