This summer, taking that much needed break from living and dying with each Arsenal result, I’ve gotten to watch some other sports and do a bit of deeper thinking. (In fact, as I write, I happen to be watching some tennis being played in West London.) Arsenal ARE my main focus (in the world of sports, these days) but, with each look in the mirror (to note further baldness–and grey amongst the hair which remains) I realize I’ve been watching sports for a rather lengthy period even if my introduction to the Arsenal was relatively recent.
As a kid, of course, I followed all the local teams in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being from the east side of that body of water, the Oakland teams were mine. The Raiders were the bad boys of American football but they left town (for Los Angeles) when I was still quite young, taking my affections with them. Later on, it was not hard to favour the team from the other side of the Bay (SF 49ers) as they won all their championships. In basketball, the San Francisco Warriors came the other way, moving from a stadium built for agricultural shows (actually called “The San Francisco Cow Palace”) to an arena in a development on my side of the Bay known as the Oakland Coliseum Complex. That one was built around the outdoor stadium which housed the Oakland Athletics baseball team. As a boy, this team was my primary focus given that they won three consecutive World Series and then, later, became the first team to really benefit from the revolution in performance enhancing drugs.
The A’s of that era–with Mark McGuire hitting fly balls which turned into home runs and Jose Canseco’s bloated upper body running around on stick-legs trying to catch the same–but hit by opponents and staying in the park–were the start of a type of cheating which ultimately ruined that game, for me at least. Still fun to follow, just a bit, but hard to take seriously.
In that era I was actually playing more sports than I was watching. As one might imagine, however, my sports playing was influenced by what I was watching. Basketball was in a golden era. In the West, Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers were dominant and having classic annual battles with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Meanwhile, the greatest player to ever play the game, Michael Jordan, had been drafted by the Chicago Bulls, while another team based in that same area–the Detroit Pistons–were emerging as a defensive antidote to the scoring blur of the great Laker-Celtic rivalry. If you’re a fan of the sport, this documentary is a very worthwhile watch.
My personal basketball career had stalled at the age of 8 (hahaha) but, watching the Pistons, and particularly a young player named Dennis Rodman (nicknamed “The Worm”) who contributed with his running, defending and rebounding, I became convinced I could play–and contribute–at least at the recreational level played by many of my friends. Additionally, the game was a perfect way to stay fit and have fun in the gym over the (mild) winter for the sport I took very seriously at the time–Ultimate Frisbee. Sure, scoff all you like, but that game was the center of my 20s and my (club) team played in the National (US) Championships twice as Champions of the Western Region (all US states West from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean).
As I moved into my thirties, basketball and then golf, a sport I had played in high school, became my twin foci. In this period, that latter, elitist sport, experienced a boom with the emergence of Tiger Woods. A young, multi-racial superstar stood the sport on its ear and his win in the 2000 Masters ushered in a new era.
In fact, my stay in North London in 2006 (at the address I use as my screenname) began with a week-long Scottish golf adventure organized by a friend of mine from the high school team. Afterwards, having been housed in a flat on the Highbury Fields, I immediately spotted the glaring lights of the new stadium (practically in our backyard) and the parade of red and white clad fans on their way to watch Arsenal matches. I had always enjoyed the sport (and tried to watch live matches in my travels) although the international game–the only element covered here in the States–left me flat. Being near the Arsenal–and with the internet at hand to answer my every question–I was quickly hooked. I tried to buy tickets from the scalpers (touts) but in those early days of the stadium they were hardly available. Instead, I watched in the pubs. One, on the Holloway Road (just across from the actual Highbury Library), had the better televisions; the other, on a back alley near the Highbury-Islington station, had the superior ale and a more predictable and interesting clientele, even if their small televisions were mostly focused on the cricket and the run-up to the Ashes tournament that Autumn.
What a gift it was to be dropped right smack into geographic heart of a big club like Arsenal! The quality of the play immediately caught my attention as did the controversies I read about and saw, first hand, amongst Gooners. Fans–in the pubs and, of course, on-line–were lamenting the retirement of Dennis Bergkamp and the departure of Robert Pires and Ashley Cole. There was a measure of excitement around young Cesc Fabregas and new acquisitions Alex Hleb, Tomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Adebayor and William Gallas. Results were not good that Autumn, but many held out hope for Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljundberg making strong recoveries from injury. They were less keen on goofy characters like Emmanuel Eboue and other young players like Phillipe Senderos, Gael Clichy and Denilson. I was trying to make sense of it all and had plenty of confusion sorting out breaks for international games (Euro qualifiers) and the various club competitions and what each match signified. While we were there, Arsenal couldn’t beat teams like Everton and CSKA Moscow in their new stadium and lost (for the first time in over 40 years) across town at Fulham.
Perhaps because I was such an innocent–and hadn’t experienced the great years at Highbury–a structure now being converted into condominiums–it all seemed marvelous to me. We left on North London Derby Day, the first held in the new stadium, a 3-1 victory and one where Emmanuel Adebayor scored a great goal and was congratulated by Thierry Henry on the sidelines.
It’s been all Arsenal–and English and European club football–all the time, since then, for me, and the slow climb for Wenger’s team(s) against increasing difficulties. The huge money poured into Chelsea and Manchester City by their owners has been nearly matched by American owners at Manchester United and Liverpool. Arsenal, meanwhile, has attempted to stabilize under the far more conservative Arsenal board (and, eventually, their own hand-picked majority shareholder, another American, Stan Kroenke). We were supposed to be following a “sustainable” growth plan built on the revenues from the new stadium and the move towards younger, less established players–at least partially supplied by a strong youth academy–would eventually yield top notch results. Beyond the “financial steroids” of the newer top clubs, the bursting of the real estate bubble which cost the Highbury project at least 100-200 million pounds also didn’t help. Charging more for tickets but delivering less on-field success has not been the best recipe for supporter happiness.
Still, in the longer term, it might be come to be seen as a paradigm shift towards a more real and lasting type of success. So far, Wenger only has the bronze bust in the fancier interior spaces of the new stadium rather than a full statue in the plazas (alongside those of Herbert Chapman, Henry and Bergkamp) where it might be subject to vandalism. Many, as we know all too well, are ready to knock down the manager at any disappointment.
Sometimes I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t try to separate results from the bold efforts the club, with Wenger at the helm, are attempting. Fans (and pundits) have every right to live in the moment and allow their emotions to fly up and down with each win, loss or draw–not to mention every big spend or rejection in the transfer market. Still, if one can look at the broader trends, I think it’s hard to argue that Arsenal under the long term leadership of Wenger (a rarity in itself)–including the move to the bigger, more modern stadium–are not on an upward trajectory. We ARE leading a paradigm shift, in this regard at least, and maybe need to judge ourselves and other clubs by the new standard we have established rather than always viewing our situation through the older, more traditional lenses. Trophies matter, of course, and fortunately the long drought in winning them has come to an end, but there might be other ways to judge success.
Nonetheless, and I’m guessing I’m not alone here, I cannot help but want to see even more successful innovation from the manager and the club.
This was reinforced this summer in watching a team I used to support and watch closely, the Golden State Warriors, winning the basketball championships. (For awhile there, back when my basketball playing got started, I was attending 10-20 games per season.) This current team is led by a phenomenal player, Steph Curry, perhaps the best “small” player I’ve ever witnessed. He plays the game in a new way (for me, at least), generally staying on his toes, shooting from incredible distances (with amazing accuracy) and using the cross-over dribble to get open shots (and drives to the hoop) almost at will. Moreover, his team, coached by another famous perimeter shooter from the Chicago Bulls of the Michael Jordan era (Steve Kerr), are playing a different game. Their success is predicated on almost all their players being strong at shooting from beyond the 3 point line. Many have argued (for years) that a team with such an approach should be able to prevail given that shots from that range are worth 50% more. This approach, however, discounts the human factor and the need to maintain confidence despite missing more shots. When push comes to shove in basketball (as it does all too often) relying on the referees to call fouls (and the home crowd to intimidate them into calling them) and slowing the game (to take opposing crowds out) is normal strategy; playing for (and making) those 1 point shots (from the free throw line) is the usual–and far less fun to watch–protocol.
That Curry and the Warriors were able to win the championship against LeBron James’ (injury riddled) Cleveland Cavaliers–and on their home court no less, was a real triumph–for my hometown team and for a new approach to the game.
In a certain respect, since I’ve been watching Arsenal, I think Wenger has been trying to do likewise. Buying players based on the potential of their technique has been an approach enforced by economics (much of the proven talent–including our own–has been hoovered up by the money-down-a-hole clubs) but also a clear statement asking (at times begging…) the English game to evolve towards his own view. For years Arsenal have been branded “a soft touch” and players with obvious technical merits have been derided along these lines–even by our own fans. My belief, and I think it’s Wenger’s too, is that technique can bring results and results can change the game–for the better. Playing to the more primitive (and nervous) elements in the crowd may be necessary at times, but remaining disciplined and committed to a more technical version of triumph is the real paradigm shift here.
Anyhow, this is just a post about my own personal background and one of the reasons I find Arsenal so fascinating to watch. Tell us about yours. What sports have you played and watched? Who have been the most interesting characters and what have been the most telling moments? Do you believe Arsenal under Wenger (or any other team/manager) are changing the way the game is played? It may not be the radical transformation the aforementioned Dennis Rodman made (see photos below) from skinny rebounding and defensive wizard to body artist (not to mention reality TV star and international diplomat) but it seems like a change nonetheless.
Maybe there’s no room to get away from the tyranny of match to match results or worries about each and every transfer rumour or signed deal or player in or out of pre-season squads, but perhaps there is…
Go on then…