Monday, 30 June 2008

Top 30 countdown have recently been counting down the best ever Arsenal players. Here's my own list (from players in my own lifetime):

1. Dennis Bergkamp
2. Thierry Henry
3. Patrick Vieira
4. Liam Brady
5. Tony Adams
6. Ian Wright
7. Paul Merson
8. David Seaman
9. David O'Leary
10. Robert Pires
11. Pat Jennings
12. Kenny Sensational
13. Charlie George
14. Ray Kennedy
15. Paul Davis
16. Nigel Winterburn
17. Marc Overmars
18. Sol Campbell
19. Cesc Fabregas
20. David Rocastle
21. Michael Thomas
22. Pat Rice
23. John Lukic
24. Freddie Ljungberg
25. Martin Keown
26. Lee Dixon
27. Charlie Nicholas
28. Ray Parlour
29. Steve Bould
30. Alan Smith

That said, I'd now like to pay tribute to no.28 on my list, Ray Parlour.
Ray came into the Arsenal team after George broke up the 1991 Championship side. He had shoulder-length curly blonde hair then, an all-action muppet of a player, hurtling around the pitch with energy but little plan or effectiveness. I think he played some part in the 1993 League Cup win (the one where Big Tone dropped Steve Morrow onto the pitch after the final whistle went and broke his arm). As the club disintegrated in GG's dotage, then was revitalised (partly - out of the ICU anyway) by Rioch then (fully) by Arsene, Ray seemed destined to go the way of David Hillier or Ian Selly - especially after his association with the laddish, drinking culture that Arsene cleared away, epitomised in his Ray 'Pizza' Parlour tabloid nickname (so-called after he got into trouble when he let off a fire extinguisher at a pizza restaurant early in his career).
But no. Under Arsene, Ray was a different player entirely.
In fact, I have always thought that, for all the excellence of Bergkamp and Overmars and the emergence of Anelka, the real man of the season for us in the 1998 Double campaign was Ray Parlour. Playing right midfield, Ray was crucial to the balance of the team. He knew when to tuck in and make three in the middle with Paddy and Petit to mix it; he knew when to get wide to provide an outlet for a quick counterattack; he knew when to release the ball back to Dennis or Paddy to play in Overmars or Anelka. In a team of gifted players, he knew not to play with ego, but to work within his own limitations, playing for the team, for the win. Unshowy, unflashy, often unnoticed, Ray was always more than a 'water carrier' (as Cantona dubbed Deschamps): he was tactically one of the best English midfielders of his generation. England managers never noticed him, partly because Beckham came to prominence by 1998, playing wide right; but Beckham was not a team player in the same way, but a kind of quarterback. Beckham was certainly no tactical genius, however sublime that right boot might have been for whipping in a free kick. Ray knew what to do in games; his technique was sound; and he could score goals. The crowning glory was when the 'Romford Pele' cruised across the Cardiff turf in the 2002 Cup Final and smote the ball arcing high into the top corner of Cudicini's goal to put us 1-0 up; but ever after, even when Ray was no longer a first-team choice, he was the perfect substitute, who got the pace of the game immediately and played as the match required, selfless and full of heart.
I think Ray Parlour is one of the great Arsenal players, a youth team player who gave his very best to the club and was at the hub of some magnificent achievements, the most sustained success for the club since the 1930s. He went off to Middlesbrough and others where eventually time and injuries wore him down; in more sentimental times, he might have finished his career with the Arsenal. I hope he comes back to the club in some capacity, and we could certainly do with Razor, circa 1998, next season.

Giving up on football

As I stated in a previous post, what has really galled and repulsed me over the past year or so is not, on reflection, the Arsenal, so much as it is the current state of football itself. Again, I must reassert that I'm no nostalgic - I was there in the bad mid-70s, bad mid-80s and bad mid-90s. But something about the current culture of football, and the popular culture in which it is nested, is rotten; nay, even perhaps close to collapse.
Arsene himself said just a day or two ago that he thought that the era of the transfer fee was coming to an end. I would put it more bluntly. The era of the footballer's binding contract is coming to an end. Bosman inaugurated our current era of player mobility; the Webster ruling furthered it; and the unwillingness of FIFA and UEFA to impose its own rules about tampering with other clubs' players (epitomised by the foolish Platini, who inveighs against clubs with large debts or large overseas playing contingents yet endorses Cristiano Ronaldo's 'right' to leave Old Trafford, contract notwithstanding, and join Real Madrid) leaves the door open for a degree of player mobility that will erode any possibility of long-term team-building by less financially powerful teams and place even more securely in the hands of the wealthy a dominant position with regard to trophies and cash flows.
There seems to be a multi-tier ranking among European (i.e. world) football clubs. At the very top are AC Milan, Inter, Real Madrid and Barcelona, who cherry-pick the best available talent from other clubs not in this elite group, largely through means of agents, 'super-agents' and tame media outlets such as AS or Marca, by 'unsettling' players and then dealing with the clubs. Manchester United (as shown through the pursuit of Owen Hargreaves) and Chelsea (the Ashley Cole case) are on the periphery of this group. In the next tier are teams such as Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern, Juve, Roma, Sevilla and Valencia perhaps, who are (in the main) Champions League qualifiers year-on-year with the financial muscle to attract high quality players. Below that, teams such as Ajax, Werder Bremen, Monaco, Villareal, Fiorentina, PSV. And so on in a vast pyramid. Each tier preys upon those below.
That is why I feel aggrieved at Adebayor's stupid, insensitive, greedy comments vis a vis a move to Milan or Barca, but also understand that it is what we did to PSG with Anelka, Marseille with Flamini, and so on.
Arsene has kept Arsenal at the bottom end of the European top table by a canny knack of spotting and developing players. The corollary of this, as with the above-mentioned Anelka and Flamini, is that these players come to the notice of teams in the tier above who offer a large transfer fee (or very large contract; or both) to secure that player for their own team. Arsenal have therefore to develop another to fill this gap, just as Ajax have done for 30 or 40 years. Ajax have been chronically prevented from keeping together groups of developed players because they have a reputation for producing excellent young talent; Arsenal now play like the great Ajax sides, produce players like the Ajax system, and are preyed upon like Ajax are. Indeed, one of the players we have been linked with as a possible Adebayor replacement is Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the latest Ajax 'starlet'.
Like Ajax, Arsenal are particularly vulnerable to changes in player mobility because their continued success relies upon developing young talent, but they do not have the financial resources to ward off bigger sharks. In Ajax's case, this is because they play in the comparatively small Dutch league; in Arsenal's case, because they are still in a process of developing their capitalization and financial power (the building of the Emirates) and because they compete domestically against Manchester United and Chelsea who, for different reasons, have far greater economic power than Arsenal. Arsenal therefore struggle to win domestic (let alone European) trophies on a year-by-year basis, and, therefore, eventually to retain ambitious players.
For clubs like Arsenal, I think the near future looks potentially very worrying: maximised player mobility will mean a much higher turnover of playing staff year on year, resultant problems of team cohesion and maintenance of quality, and the spectre of turning into a 'feeder' for the elite teams. The same situation pertains now in the English lower leagues. There are few long-term contracts, and high turnovers of playing staff. While Arsenal might give Adebayor a five-year contract, after one successful season, it seems that contract has little effective force.
What's the alternative? I'm not sure. One alternative is to 'do a Bolton': accept the changing nature of the market and recruit older players whose market value will be less than rising stars, in the hopes that this will provide some kind of continuity. Another is simply to accept the situation, carry on, and hope to retain enough good and sensible young men (Fabregas, Clichy, Sagna) to win a trophy every two or three years. For this is the real problem: the bonds of player 'loyalty' to club are now pretty much dissolved, except among a few. For Adebayor (who has form on this: see his departure from Monaco) or Cristiano Ronaldo, it is their 'right' to demand ever-higher wages, and also to demand a transfer to a bigger club if these demands are not met. For them, a contract has no binding force; they blindingly, maddeningly perform their status as the football commodity, their labour power sold to the highest bidder.
It may not be 'football' as it has been, but it is late capitalism, in full effect.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Arsenal, again

The recent rumours surrounding Adebayor have sent me into a 'what is it all for' gloom with regard to the Arsenal once again. At least massive continental clubs cherry-picking top talent isn't only happening to us this season, but it's disappointing.
Andre Arshavin would be a wonderful addition to the Arsenal passing style, but I'm not hoping he'll come, as he probably won't. With the technical ability of Hleb but with more penetration and end-product, Arshavin was sensational in the Euro 2008match against Holland. In fact, he reminds me more of Messi than an out-and-out striker.
With Hleb's mooted departure, I have been thinking about Arsenal wingers. I first saw Arsenal when George Armstrong was in the side, but remember little about him. It was George Graham's trick, in the late 80s, to use the purchase of a winger to kick-start a title challenge. In the summer of 1988, GG bought Brian Marwood from Sheffield Wednesday, who introduced himself to Arsenal fans in the pre-season Wembley 'Makita Tools' tournament (them's were the days) by scoring against Tottenham in a 4-0 drubbing. Marwood was very important in the 89 championship side, and he scored the day I stood in the Clock End as news from the Hillsborough FA Cup semi-final began to trickle through. Marwood, today a rather arsey Sky co-commentator (3rd string) (though he doesn't seem to resent the Arse as much as David Platt), lasted but two years, because in 1990 GG went Scandanavian and bought Anders Limpar.
This was in the days before a Scandanavian purchase meant brown paper envelopes (think Pal Lydersen). Anders was a slight, speedy winger, with a low sense of gravity but with a rather fragile sense of balance - at speed, a minor touch could send him spinning to the penalty area turf like an over-wound clockwork toy. He was skilful too - one season, a chip from the half-way line over Bruce Grobelaar and into the net threatened to perturb On The Ball's Goal of the Season competition (they had to add it on - it didn't win, though). Limpar had a kind of quick, stuttering running style, but he was the model for the kind of penetrative winger who cut in and scored goals rather than whipping over crosses that was to find its best (so far) exponent in Marc Overmars. (Much as I loved - and think we still miss - Bob Pires, he wasn't that kind of player. Nor was Freddie Ljungberg.) Limpar and Overmars were cut from the same cloth as footballers - small, very quick, an eye for goal, dark hair over angular northern european features. And each only lasted about two seasons. Limpar was sold to Everton, Overmars to Barcelona - but neither recaptured their Arsenal magic at their new clubs.
Between Anders and Overmars the list of wide players strikes horror into the long-time Arsenal fan: 'Steady' Eddie McGoldrick (who I remember only every having one decent game for the Arsenal, away at Liege in the CWC), Jimmy Carter, Stefan Malz. We even failed to sign Andy Sinton from QPR in 1994, who chose Sheffield Wednesday over Arsenal! Dog days indeed.
So, Arshavin, Vela, Walcott, Rosicky, even Hleb - Arsenal sides perform best when they have a penetrative goalscoring winger but who, next season, will give us this edge?