As an Arsenal fan, the concept of loyalty in football can seem fairly laughable. Over the past two summers we’ve seen key players such as Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie all head unceremoniously for the exit door. In van Persie’s case, the departure was particularly painful, as this was a player whom the club had nursed back to fitness on several occasions only for him to leave for Manchester United, citing his new club’s greater chances of winning silverware.
Van Persie’s logic was hard to argue with, and the fact that his first return to Emirates was met with a guard of honour in recognition of his United’s title win instantly vindicated his decision. Nasri was similarly vindicated last season (along with former gunners Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy), when he traded another mundane battle for Champions League football at the Emirates for that glorious title win at Eastlands. Nasri was also painfully apposite when he said that, “If all that I was interested in was money, the easiest decision would have been to stay at Arsenal, picking up my money every week and walking into the team. There are many people doing this right now at Arsenal.”
He’s right. Even the most anti-Nasri Arsenal fans could hardly argue that the likes of Sebastian Squillaci and Andrey Arshavin have any more loyalty to the club than the Frenchman; instead they’re simply not good enough to attract a buyer, but are happy enough to stay on Arsenal’s payroll.
The reality is that in football, like most industries, employees want to be at the most successful organisations, and if those organisations will also pay them more than their current employer, then that makes the decision to join them even more of a no-brainer. I expect that most people reading this would make the same choice in his or her line of work. And while I appreciate that most people reading this won’t have 60,000 supporters of their current employer publically adoring them for what they do each week, it’s easy to see the lure of joining one of the Manchester clubs.
It would seem then that loyalty in football is very difficult to find, especially as an Arsenal fan. And yet, there is someone at the club who has stayed for 17 years, has delivered unprecedented success and a revolutionary playing style, has turned down some of the biggest clubs in the world, not to mention his own national team, and continues to toil day and night for the club.
That man is of course Arsene Wenger, whose reward for his loyalty is to be told he doesn’t know what he’s doing by a portion of his own club’s supporters. Wenger has certainly made mistakes as Arsenal manager but I find the hypocrisy staggering: Arsenal fans abuse Nasri, van Persie, Clichy et al. for their treachery and lack of loyalty but when presented with an almost incomparable level of loyalty from their manager, the response is not even indifference but invective.
After Sir Alex Ferguson’s resignation at the end of the season, Wenger will be comfortably the longest serving manager in the Premier League. Moreover, in contrast to Wenger, Ferguson had almost unbroken success and investment (certainly since 1992) so has had little reason to leave. Wenger has also had access to funds, and has spent a reasonable amount but his spending over the last ten years has been comparatively frugal – and yet this is also the subject of derision rather than praise.
Again there is an element of hypocrisy here. We pity clubs like Leeds United and Portsmouth and castigate individuals like David O’Leary and Harry Redknapp who were seen as having little to no regard for the long-term stability of the club, but we then lament Wenger’s lack of spending. I don’t for a second believe it is the manager’s responsibility to take care of the club’s finances, but it’s impressive that Wenger has accepted that his owners want to run the club as a profit-making business, and that therefore his transfer budget will not be the same as Chelsea’s or the Manchester clubs. Because we should not forget that Wenger is not the miserly spendthrift that he is routinely caricatured as being.
Under different ownership, and before the imperatives of repaying an expensive stadium kicked in, Wenger was happy to spend what was then big money. In 1997, he spent £17 million (a considerable amount back then, and what was a summer net spend of just under £12 million, the second highest net spend, after 2001, of any Arsenal summer under Wenger) on assembling a squad strong enough to topple Manchester United. He then spent £19 million on Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires in the summer of 2000 before spending £22.5 million in the summer of 2001, a summer that also included the expenditure of Sol Campbell’s wages and signing on fee. 12 months later Arsenal were champions, and Wenger is probably smart enough to spot that correlation, just as he would have done in 1998 after spending decent money the previous summer.
It’s for this reason that I don’t accept the image of Wenger as a scrooge, turning down millions of pounds he is being offered because of a misplaced ideology in not buying success. Prior to the Emirates move and the Roman Abramovich Chelsea buyout, Wenger was able to operate on a largely level playing field with his rivals, and was willing to spend what was the going rate. He now finds himself in a situation where his club’s owners aren’t willing to match the extortionate fees being paid by his closest rivals.
To put this into perspective, when Arsenal played Chelsea at Emirates Stadium in September 2012, seven of Chelsea’s lineup were more expensive than Arsenal’s record signing.
There aren’t many, possibly any, top class managers who would accept such limitations, especially if they were being offered jobs by clubs such as Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain. Even taking into account the fact that Wenger himself is on a very healthy salary, it’s hardly the case that a Real or a PSG are shy about handsomely remunerating their managers. Just ask Jose Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti, whose salaries are both higher than Wenger’s.
Football supporters have every right to voice their opinions, and if they don’t think Wenger is the right man for the job, then that’s fine. But I would ask them to think about what they see as representing the loyalty they preach to former players, because if it’s not turning down clubs with more money to spend on players and a greater chance of winning trophies, then I’m not sure what is. Maybe loyalty doesn’t matter to these fans either, which is ok too, but in that case let’s spare Nasri or van Persie the self-righteous allegations of betrayal.
I accept of course that abuse of pantomime villains is part of the matchday experience, and deep down most Arsenal fans probably do not really despise their former heroes with the visceral loathing they express, nor do they truly believe their deceased grandmother could do a better job than the club’s erudite French manager. But in a week where Ferguson has left Manchester United still universally adored by the club’s faithful, there is a certain poignancy at Wenger’s diluted popularity at Arsenal.
The reality is that Wenger will probably leave in a year or two, probably having not ended the side’s wait for a trophy that, as we all know, dates back to 2005. He’ll be replaced and eventually Arsenal will win a trophy, maybe in one year, maybe in five, maybe in ten. In an age though where the most successful managers are gun-for-hire Mourinho types, and clubs like Chelsea are, not unsuccessfully, turning over managers at a rate of roughly one a year, we should cherish individuals like Wenger, because it may be a while before we, both as a club, and as a wider football community, see the like of him, and his level of loyalty, again.