Many many moons ago, I wrote to my favorite computer game magazine, Gamesmaster, asking them a question that was a matter of economic dexterity a little too advanced for me. I was 12 at the time.
Why oh why, I scrawled, before the original Xbox came out, could Microsoft not use their buckets of money to buy the exclusive rights to the games produced by Rockstar, Konami, EA etc, and secure a comfortable win in the upcoming console war with the Playstation 2, Dreamcast and the Gamecube?
They printed my letter, along with the logical explanation, that even if it were possible in my idealised world, to do that would cost more than the profits they might make from winning the console war. They also mentioned other factors like existing exclusive licenses. I felt a little embarrassed.
But what does that have to do with Arsenal FC and Arsene Wenger? While I may be forgiven for not understanding as a youngster, it seems some Arsenal fans also have problems with understanding the economics of competition.
Continuing on the brief history trip, the younger fans may not be aware just how unsuccessful Arsenal have been over the years. Five years without a trophy is difficult, but in the whole of the 1980s, Arsenal only won two trophies—the League Cup in 1987 and the first division in 1988-1989.
Before the Fever Pitch-inspiring 1988-1989 season and Michael Thomas’s famous goal, Arsenal had won the league just three times in the preceding 41 years. A lot is made of Arsenal not winning a trophy for five years, but in the pre-Wenger post-Chapman days, there wasn’t a huge amount to shout about as an Arsenal supporter. Going trophy-less was the expectation not the exception.
When Arsene Wenger took over in 1996, Arsenal was not the hot favorites to win the league. They had finished fifth the year before and 12th the year before that. They didn’t have the excuse that they were playing beautiful football to fall back on either; this was very much a time of trying to score one goal and then holding out for a 1-0 win.
But in less than two years, he had the club playing the way he wanted, and despite spending less than Manchester United on players, they were able to compete and either won the league or came second every year from 1997-1998 to 2004-2005.
Despite the injection of Abramovich’s millions, and Arsenal having to tighten the purse strings to pay for the new Emirates Stadium, the club has not failed to qualify for the Champions League. Even with the new threat of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City,and despite numerous injuries, Arsenal finished comfortably third.
Arsenal are still a business, and not just a football club, and the fact that Wenger has kept them competitive despite the obvious restraints on his spending compared to the other clubs around him is remarkable. How many other managers around the world could do what he has done?
I read an article not long ago comparing what Wenger is building with youth at Arsenal to Barcelona’s steady supply of stars from their youth team. Sure, the other clubs can spend big like Real Madrid or gamble with foreign ownership and spiral into debt, but it’s healthier for a club if it can raise its young players from the inside and then supplement with outside talent.
When Arsene Wenger does decide to retire, and Arsenal have to replace him, only then will we as Arsenal fans realise just how lucky we were.