Tradition is a word that is used often in connection with Arsenal. This is seen as a positive thing. The club and the supporters are keen to play up Arsenal’s connection with time honoured customs. The club is sprinkled with gestures and symbols that are worth their weight in historical gold. ‘Tradition’ is a word that has a vice like grip on the British conscience. For large swathes of the British public, it is a good enough reason to maintain an institution like the monarchy without any need for further inquiry as to what it does or what it costs. ‘It’s traditional’ or variations on that theme are considered emphatic answers. The defence rests m’lud.
A large part of football support is based on sentiment. Most of us decide on our teams of choice at childhood and every fixture that they play hence, for the rest of our lives, is a piece of childhood recaptured. Association is a prominent instrument in the heart’s string section. If you were to take a straw poll of Arsenal fans and ask them what they love most about the club, I would wager that the words ‘tradition’ and ‘class’ would be the two most recurring adjectives.
Arsenal are the club that dyes its boardroom flowers in the colour of the opposition at every home match. We’re the club that lines up in the centre circle at the beginning of every game and applauds all four sides of the ground- even the opposing fans. Our captain chooses the sleeve length and all players follow suit. Well, until recently. Then Mathieu Flamini took a chainsaw to his sleeves at Old Trafford before feasting on the shredded remains. (He doesn’t strike me as a ‘scissors’ type of guy). When it comes to Arsenal’s tradition, we love all that old shit. I know I do.
The purpose of this article isn’t to debate the whys and wherefores of Flamini’s punk rock, DIY fashion aesthetic. Because I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to muster so much as a microfuck about that. However, Arsenal’s traditions have been brought into sharp focus during the international break. Flamini’s Vivienne Westwood moment made meat for bored minds. I had already sketched out the premise of this article when Arsenal announced a commercial tie in (get it?) with tailors Lanvin, thus bringing back the rather old school practice of the players wearing suits on match days.
The announcement is tailored (DO YOU GET IT?) to a point I had already prepared. Arsenal’s connection with ‘tradition’ and heritage is important to the club in a commercial sense. The marketing bods at the club (and at most organisations or ‘brands’ I guess) will always talk about having “a story to tell” to hook new supporters / consumers / slack jawed cash dispensers. Manchester United have the Busby Babes and The Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton, Liverpool have the boot room and a decade and a half of domestic and European supremacy.
Both clubs have also been touched by tragedy and, at the risk of sounding insensitive, this also forms part of their ‘story to tell’ too. Believe me. Arsenal’s commercial department have ramped up the ‘traditional’ rhetoric over the last few years, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because we are now in the post FFP landscape of voracious revenue expansion. It may not have escaped your notice that Arsenal haven’t won a trophy for a while, so along with the ‘self sustaining’ spiel, we’ve had to focus on less tangible reasons that kiddies (and adults I guess) across the world might choose to support Arsenal.
Interconnected with our lack of silverware, is the comparative soullessness of Manchester City and Chelsea who, as we often sneeringly remind them, “ain’t got no history.” It’s the ace in our immaculately fitted commercial sleeve, as well as our textbook terrace riposte. Arsenal have ditched the baggy tracksuits and increasingly ridiculous headphones of yesteryear and harked back to the short back and sides eras of Mee and Graham with the match day suit. But they have done so for a princely sum taken from a Parisian commercial outfit (is this thing on?) Tradition sells, ya dig?
Yet tradition, at its heart, has a whopping great paradox. All traditions begin somewhere and at their inception, they are presumably derided by contemporary traditionalists. Herbert Chapman is viewed as the poster boy for Arsenal’s great traditions. Many of our most famous customs were his idea. Though I have seen many, in their hasty fury at Mathieu Flamini, wrongly attribute the sleeve tradition to him. As the excellent Arsenal historian Andy Kelly (@Gooner_AK) points out, short sleeved shirts weren’t even an option for our players until 1961. In fact, nobody seems to be able to pinpoint the origin of this custom.
Chapman himself really wasn’t much of a traditionalist. In fact, he was quite the opposite. He was an innovator that often grappled with arch conservatives that dismissed his ideas; such as an elite European cup competition, floodlights and numbered shirts. Many of his enduring protocols were not borne out of a sense of tradition, most of them were practical. He introduced white sleeves to Arsenal’s previously all red shirts so that the players could pick each other out with greater ease. Arsenal played for almost half a century without a home kit featuring red shirts and white sleeves. What would contemporary traditionalists have made of Chapman’s sartorial treachery?
Chapman demanded his players applaud all four sides of the ground before kickoff due to a genuine anxiety he had that football crowds would soon be decimated by the up and coming sport of speedway. This was a gesture with practicality at its vanguard. In many senses, Arsenal aren’t a very traditional club. 100 years ago, we broke the ultimate footballing taboo and moved the club 13 miles north. Time has done little to distil people’s sense of outrage at such a move, as MK Dons are discovering.
There was no small sense of outrage when the club ditched the Latin motto “Victoria Concordia Crescit” from their crest in 2002. Yet those words were not associated with Arsenal until 1950, some 64 years into our existence. Arsenal jettisoned the previous motto – “Forward” – to accommodate it, a legend that had been chosen by the very men that founded the club. VCC is considered as traditional by Arsenal fans of a certain age, but to those even older (and many long since dead); it unseated an even more sacrosanct heritage.
It is difficult to maintain time honoured rituals in the face of progress- in the capitalistic sense of the word progress. Moving from south London to north London wasn’t a very traditional move and neither is naming your stadium after an airline for money. It’s difficult to draw the line between tradition and commerce, so it’s a slightly curious relationship that Arsenal has adopted between the two. Vincent Tan’s decision to alter Cardiff’s shirt colour and crest in the face of market appeal disgusts most British football fans.
Yet the uncomfortable truth is that, in reality, it’s the logical progression from sponsored shirts to sponsored stadiums to having an official mobile phone retailer in Indonesia. Arsenal have changed their crest and shirt colour many times. Perhaps our real tradition is how malleable our sense of tradition actually is. Ironically, I think many people are very parochial and subjective about what they perceive Arsenal’s heritage to be.
Many, if they are honest with themselves, use it as a mast upon which to hoist their quest for lost youth. They want the shirt, the crest and the kit to be what it is when they were young. What it might have been when their parents or grandparents were young is often ignored. Like I said at the outset, supporting a football team is a constant attempt at childhood recaptured, which is one of its charming qualities. But when you take a step back, you realise what a nebulous concept ‘tradition’ actually is. LD.
Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA