Arsenal should be the neutrals’ choice – but watch those London derbies

FURTHER EVIDENCE of Arsenal’s Premier League title credentials was provided at Stamford Bridge last weekend, the Gunners’ 1-0 victory demonstrating the progress of Mikel Arteta’s side over the past year. It was a clear case of a virile tiger marking his territory – Arsenal are in a far better place than any other London club, but the problem will always be Manchester City. Arsenal cannot afford a slip-up and they’ve not even reached the halfway stage of the season, it is too early to truly assess how durable this team is.

Football watchers in England should be hoping that Arsenal can last the distance. It’s important that Manchester City are not allowed to run away with the title and with other would-be challengers either in transition or simply unable to match City’s financial clout, someone has to push them. It may as well be Arsenal.

Appreciation of an opponent is not encouraged in the modern game, we are all either friends or enemies, a reflection of the state of the world at the moment, where adversarial politics are making cooperation for the the greater good unachievable. Football is often a mirror image of society, but today it almost seems as though society is replicating the traditional myopic rivalries of the game!

It is unlikely supporters of Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham would delight in another London club winning the Premier League. Certainly, the north London rivalry would make that an impossible sentiment north of the river. In 2022-23, there are seven London clubs in the Premier League, meaning each team has 12 derbies, over 31% of their 38 fixtures. Sometimes, you wonder if these games have as much relevance as they once did – very few players are actually from London among the various squads and the days of born and bred fans have gone. In times when people fell out of bed and into their local stadiums, clubs like West Ham and Tottenham really did represent their community, but in 2022, football followers are largely commuter fans.

There is still some satisfaction from beating your neighbours, but it doesn’t mean quite the same. The mythical act of bragging rights, which belonged to an age where everyone worked in the factory and teased and taunted each other, no longer dominates the Monday morning tea break. But then why would it? Tommy the Tottenham fan, elated from beating Arsenal, probably goes home to Stevenage or Hemel Hempstead after the game, sharing the journey with supporters from Chelsea, West Ham and Queens Park Rangers, among other clubs. It is interesting that the top clubs in England (the big six), have the lowest number of local season ticket holders. Part of this is due to the development of inner London and the creation of new towns after the second world war, which removed large portions of the population from intensely crowded neighbourhoods.

There was a time when we believed that too many London derbies were detrimental to the success of clubs, that the intensity of “cockney clashes” hampered their chances. This was largely nonsense and was an excuse for underachievement, although it has to be said that until Chelsea found wealth London’s record was unimpressive when it came to league titles – just 16 up to 2004, of which 13 were Arsenal’s.

London derbies 2022-23

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Aside from wartime leagues, there have been few opportunities for any club to claim they were London’s champions. West Ham, in their excellent Hammer programme of the 1960s and 1970s, always included an unofficial London championship, comprising the top division of the Football League.

Over the past 10 years, Chelsea have won this mini-league six times, but more importantly, they have been London’s top club in the Premier League on eight occasions. Invariably, the best London side by results among the capital clubs is also the top-placed in the overall league table. For the last four seasons, Chelsea have been top in both categories. Indeed, Chelsea enjoyed a 68% win rate in London derbies between 2018-19 and 2021-22.

Arsenal haven’t won the Premier since 2004 and in that time, they have mostly had to play second fiddle to Chelsea. They were last London’s top club in the Premier League in 2016 and they’ve not been “top ‘o London” since 2014. On the evidence of the 2022-23 season so far, the balance of power might be about to change as the Gunners have a 100% record in their five derbies so far and have beaten Chelsea and Tottenham. Chelsea enjoyed the top spot due to the stewardship – and generous wallet – of Roman Abramovich, but with the Russian gone and the club under new ownership, Arsenal have an opportunity to reassert their position in the capital. It will be an interesting sideshow in the remaining months of the campaign, but more crucially, can Arsenal maintain their form and take their title challenge into the post-World Cup period?

Envy drives football rivalry – if only we would admit it

WHEN Liverpool won the Champions League for the sixth time, there were as many bricks thrown at the club as bouquets. Supporters of Liverpool’s closest rivals, notably Manchester United and Chelsea, begrudged the success of the Reds, using all sorts of excuses for why they had won the competition and, unable to be over negative about the team, turned to criticising the fans and their behaviour and revived taunts of old, from high unemployment in the city (“in your Liverpool slums”), to Heysel Stadium and even Hillsborough. Not everyone dislikes Liverpool, but when you have big bodies of fans like United and Chelsea bitterly denying the club any success, it must seem like the world is against them. Certainly, the incessant abuse of a club guarantees that siege mentality builds-up and those on the end of constant criticism become the victim. In some respects, it strengthens their resolve.

We see it everywhere there is football rivalry. Arsenal fans, no great lovers of Liverpool, were urging on Klopp’s team because they couldn’t bear the thought of Tottenham winning the UEFA Champions League. Football fans spend too much time “hating” their rivals or enemies and not enough time extolling the virtues of their own club. Just watch Arsenal fans during a game and how many times they refer to Tottenham, not least in demanding that everyone should “stand up if you hate Tottenham”. Interesting, given that Arsenal are really “Johnny come latelies” in North London and extremely more successful than Spurs and therefore shouldn’t be too worried about them if they were confident about their own standing.

An assured club shouldn’t fret about a local rival as it would be far more “grand” to not worry about the fortunes of another club. Do Real Madrid and Barcelona worry about their neighbours, do Bayern Munich get all bent out of shape about TSV 1860?

But it is unlikely to ever be any different in football. Why? Because the game is, essentially, a very simple function – win, lose or draw. One goal changes everything. The objective is to kick or head a ball into a goal, there’s nothing very sophisticated about it – football is, after all, an illiterate game. Therefore, the result of a victory for one, a defeat for another, becomes the catalyst for taunting, goading, abusing and poking fun. All very basic emotions adopted by the masses. Losers envy winners and try to explain defeat with a dose of “what aboutism” or envy of the victors’ greater strength.

From the very top of the game to grassroots level, football is a sport where the green-eyed monster of jealousy comes to the fore time and time again. The game has always been one where competitive imbalance has governed who wins the prizes and who struggles – the current landscape is extreme, but you can go back 100-plus years to find examples of clubs having financial advantages and wealthy benefactors. Rarely, if ever, has football been a democracy, but it has had “eras” where clubs have risen to the surface – such as Preston North End in the 1890s, Huddersfield in the 1920s, Arsenal in the 1930s, Manchester United in the 1950s, Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s and United again under Sir Alex Ferguson. The most recent drivers, of course, are Chelsea and Manchester City, the most obvious examples of inflated investment in the English game.

Chelsea and Manchester City are the subject of envy, as much as Liverpool are, but for different reasons. Liverpool, along with Arsenal and Manchester United (the traditional leaders of English football) have demonstrated envy far more than any other club, regularly bleating about the injustice of clubs with heavy investment. It’s easy to see why, for after decades of being the game’s royalty their position at the summit was threatened by Chelsea and City. They choose to ignore the fact they have all enjoyed the spoils of being better financed and, effectively, bigger than their peers for years.

Liverpool fans, equipped with their banners proclaiming their history and ethos, like nothing more than to tell the likes of Chelsea that they have “no history”. Actually, before Bill Shankly arrived at Anfield, Liverpool had seen better days. Likewise, Manchester United’s cupboard was bare before Matt Busby was appointed as manager and Arsenal were nothing before Herbert Chapman moved down from Yorkshire. Each club has its pivotal moment when they become transformed from average entities to serial trophy winners – in most cases, the spark for success has been created by an outstanding managerial appointment. For Chelsea and Manchester City, the seismic moment in their history came from the arrival of cash-rich owners. No matter what Liverpool fans think, both clubs certainly “have a history” but it’s just that it wasn’t very successful. If, to quote an old football cliché, you’re only as good as your last result, then Chelsea and City are very successful and Liverpool’s recent “history” has been patchy to say the least. Too much gap between when you created your heritage and today means you’re more likely to hear someone humming a famous Jethro Tull song while standing on one leg – i.e. Living in the Past.

Envy in non-league football is equally intriguing. Any club that has a new ground invariably has its detractors complaining about new stadiums, no atmosphere and not enough this and that. Usually, such criticisms are because club X’s ground is ramshackle, falling down, but sells itself on “character” and “unique ambience”. Furthermore, club X’s fans and officials might try to dismiss their own club’s lack of progress by giving you 101 reasons why a similar venture could not possibly be successful at their club. The envious fan will also suggest that rivals with bigger budgets are the beneficiaries of cash from a dubious source. Today, that might be money laundering, drugs, tax evasion or property development that attempts to game the system.

Of course, the non-league playing budget is a subject of great contention and rarely is the truth spoken. A club chairman with any integrity would not/should not reveal his team’s budget to an opponent. However, the budget becomes something that can massage the ego, either to boast of how much the club can afford, or to play it down and suggest they are getting value for money from a modest outlay. Either way, you cannot believe much of what is said about budgets.

The tension between clubs fuels envy more than any other aspect of the game. There’s nothing wrong with healthy rivalry, it’s an important part of football, but ultimately, it should not deny the winner the spoils – the contest is a two-horse race and there are over 2,000 of them each season in the Premier/Football league. There’s nought so myopic as the committed one-club fan and even the most intelligent football follower gets caught up in the pettiness of what amount to playground spats. Basically, it is all about aspiration – the little club wanting to be Manchester United. Everyone, in their own way, wants the same thing, but the problem with football is that when somebody actually reaches the finishing post, the sniping starts. As Morrissey sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful”.

Photo: PA