In his latest column for The Times, Simon Barnes asks a question I’ve been meaning to explore for some time: what does it mean when your football club’s philosophy does a 180 degree turn?
Comparing the eras of George Graham and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, Barnes wonders “How do long-term Arsenal fans cope? Are their heads spinning from the requirement to hold so many contradictory ideas in their heads? For years, during the times of George Graham, they believed that beauty is in the scoreline, that 1-0 represented a glorious minimalism, that to devote even an instant of time to any notion other than pure victory was a betrayal of the players, of supporters, of sport itself.”
As Barnes goes on to explain, this has been buried in the dustbin of history, replaced by Wenger’s supposed 100% commitment to the beauty of the game:
“Now they must play the part of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful losers,” Barnes continues, “claiming that the destination is less important than the journey, that sport has an aesthetic; that it is more glorious to lose with Arsenal than to win with anyone else. Both of these are tenable positions, but to hold such extreme views in such quick succession requires an extraordinary philosophical agility.”
Of course, most Arsenal fans outside of North London are not yet dealing with this contradiction. Many seem to be under the impression that Arsenal invented the beautiful game, with the footballing dirge produced by Graham’s Arsenal airbrushed out in Soviet style fashion. But for the old-timers who sat through Arsenal’s dogged defensive days under Graham, the change in mindset must be confusing.
Perhaps one way to deal with it is to continue to edit history. The below video of Arsenal since 1989 is typical of how the era of brief video highlights distorts our understanding of the past.
Despite being called a “Tale of Two Eras”, it is in fact a collection of greatest goals interspersed with trophy celebrations that suggests some kind of symmetry between the two eras, rather than the actual disconnect that Barnes comments on.
The great goals might seem to parallel each other, but that ignores everything else that went on minute after minute, day after day, that deeply differentiates the two Arsenals, and leaves Barnes’ question unanswered.