Arsenal's troubles

Published : Aug 23, 2003 00:00 IST

YOU have to feel sorry for Arsenal even if you are not, like myself, a one time Arsenal supporter.


YOU have to feel sorry for Arsenal even if you are not, like myself, a one time Arsenal supporter. One in fact who first watched the Gunners not at their Highbury home, where they moved from Plumstead, South East London, in 1913 but at White Hart Lane, the ground of their eternal rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Who've never really got over the fact that the Gunners moved to within a few miles of them to steal so much of their thunder. Especially between the wars, when Spurs largely languished in the 2nd Division while Arsenal under Herbert Chapman became one of the greatest powers in the game.

But Highbury was bombed in the war and turned into a centre for the Air Raid Precautions unit; so the Gunners shared with Spurs till the beginning of the 1946/7 season, the resumption of "official" football after World War II.

Fast forward to the present, with Arsenal hell bent on getting out of Highbury and going... where? Ideally a mile or so away to a bran (correct use of the word; see Charles Dickens) new stadium at Ashburton Grove to be built, if ever, on the site of a gigantic rubbish tip. Why do the Gunners want to move from a stadium which led the way in the 1930s in modernity and still looks handsome? Simply because the Lord Chief Justice Taylor Report, following the dreadful disaster of Hillsborough and the 95 dead at that semi-final, decreed that every major ground should now be all seater. So an Arsenal Stadium which pre war had once harboured no fewer than 72,000 spectators and post war could still take 62,000 — believe me; I have stood among them — suddenly found itself cut down to a miserable maximum of 38,000.

Given that the massive expansion of their Old Trafford stadium has allowed Manchester United to increase their capacity to 67,000 which they regularly reach, and you can see the colossal disparity in receipts between the two clubs, even before you count in the huge sums United make from selling their trademarked good abroad; though the departure of David Beckham may lead to a falling off in the Far East. The sadness of it all is that Arsenal's ground was when the East and West stands were built an example, far ahead of its time, to English football at large. Art Deco at its most ambitious.

The West Stand was opened in 1932 for a game against local rivals Chelsea by the then Prince of Wales. The East Stand followed, five years later. Of course it all cost a lot of money, even if in those far off days the players were paid a pittance under the iniquitous maximum wage.

So when the World War ended in 1945 the Gunners found themselves �100,000 in debt to the Prudential Insurance Company. Nowadays that wouldn't even buy you a reserve team player, but in current terms it would amount to some �3 million. Still, it was money well spent indeed especially when you recall that subsequently, Chelsea would run up as big a debt trying to build a new East Stand at Stamford Bridge, when beset by builders' strikes. They should have done it long since.

In the event, Arsenal switched their debt to Barclays Bank who treated them much more generously, and in due course they paid it off. But the brute realities of today's football means that Highbury, once such a treasure, has now become a burden. Indeed, for several recent seasons the Gunners switched their European Champions Cup matches to Wembley Stadium, where they attracted crowds of up to 72,000; the very figure which had been reached at Highbury before the war.

Unfortunately, the Gunners' results where varied from poor to downright embarrassing. Dynamo Kiev, Barcelona, Fiorentina and Lens all made them look bad. What to do? Their manager Arsene Wenger decided that it was imperative to move back to Highbury since the pitch at Wembley didn't suit the Gunners' tactics. Why? Because, believe it or not, it was too large!

The mind boggled. Surely, the bigger the pitch, and Wembley's was never gigantic, the more available space to play creative football? Wenger didn't think so. He wanted to bring the fixtures back to Highbury where in fact the field had been narrowed under the previous dour managerial regime under George Graham. The implication surely being that this would prevent other teams playing football.

Up to a point, Wenger was vindicated. Results did for a time improve, but not indefinitely. As time went by, more and more teams, among them modest Auxerre, came to Highbury in the European tournament and won, or held out for a draw. The decision to forsake Wembley still in retrospect seems to me a confession of failure. The stuff of anti-football unworthy of a great club.

So it was that Arsenal decided they would build a new stadium at Ashburton Grove. But right from the beginning it was bound to be a colossally expensive business, not least because so many evicted local residents and businesses would have to be heavily compensated. Indeed there was huge opposition locally to the idea, residents taking the Gunners to court, but losing all the way up to the highest appeals court. Which has not stopped them fighting on, their latest appeal being to the European Court of Human Rights.

As it transpires, they may not even have to make it. As time went by, it was reported that the cost of the new stadium had already rocketed by �100 million. And this when Arsenal would in due course have to make good payments on various other loans. The Royal Bank of Scotland, which was charged with raising the immense loan the club needed, could not provide it all itself and has had to turn to other banks to raise the money. But the other banks, one learns, are none too keen to cough up the vast amounts; it is now estimated that the club still needs an extra �350,000 000; for a stadium due to cost in all �450 million. The notion that the Gunners will even be able to move in by 2006, 2005 being abandoned as a target, now seems almost risible.

Whistling to keep his spirits up, the club's Chairman, though not the real power at Highbury, Peter Hill Wood, of the dynasty which has held that role since the 1920s, insists that all will be well and denies that Arsenal's inability to compete in the transfer market — they've had a very quiet summer — is not connected with the drain on their finances imposed by the Ashburton Grove project. Wembley seems, alas, the only logical answer, for if the club stay at Highbury, the problem of limited capacity is insuperable. But when will Wembley be ready?

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