Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Community Spirit

Whereas it once was an eagerly awaited showpiece, it resembles in the modern age little more than another public training exercise for sides who are increasingly being invited to practise for the season in more lucrative and prestigious events in foreign fields.” So wrote Stuart James in The Times on the day of the 1989 Charity Shield match between Liverpool and Arsenal. Those words could just as easily have been written today and, in retrospect, it seems a little surprising that the Charity Shield’s grandeur was dismissed in such withering terms in the late 1980s.

It’s probably because I was reared on Arsenal’s more intense involvement in the showpiece in the 1990s. The first encounter I remember was 1991’s North London derby against Spurs at Wembley. A tense and slightly drab affair that finished 0-0, quaintly enough the teams shared the Shield if the match was drawn up until 1991. That rule was changed immediately thereafter. That North London derby with Spurs at Wembley invited traumatic emotions, taking place four months after Tottenham’s 3-1 semi-final victory at the same venue.

Spurs were the only league side not to lose to Arsenal in their 1990-91 league winning campaign, so failure to beat them in the Shield felt like a miniature affront and continued a kind of hex. Thereafter, the Charity Shield became a seemingly annual canvas for the fierce Arsenal v Manchester United rivalry of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though the first one I ever attended, the 1993 encounter between Arsenal and United at a sun baked Wembley, was actually a much more laid back affair. It was the first Charity Shield to be decided by penalty shootout, with United eventually prevailing.

The usually fastidious George Graham admitted after the match that he had no idea that the game would go to penalties in the event of a draw. This would probably explain why luminaries such as John Jensen (who scored) and David Seaman (who missed the crucial spot kick) were listed as penalty takers for Arsenal. Initially, when researching this article, Stuart James’ words surprised me. I had always felt that the decline of the Charity Shield’s importance to be a more recent phenomenon. But the more I delved into the history of this traditional curtain raiser, the more I formed the conclusion that it was never really considered as important.

The perception that it has ever been ‘eagerly anticipated’ is probably a trick of childhood memory. Wembley almost never sells out for the occasion. In fact, the F.A. itself does not seem to regard the fixture with great relish either. They were forced to rebrand it ‘The Community Shield’ back in 2002 (Arsenal were the trophy’s first winners under its new identity). An investigation by the Charity Commission found that the FA had not met its legal obligations under the Charities Act by failing to specify how much money from ticket sales went to charity. The FA had also been delaying payments to the charities nominated.

The Shield actually started as an annual ‘professionals versus amateurs’ match; it wasn’t until 1930 that the League Champions v F.A. Cup winners format was decided. Again, Arsenal were the shield’s first winners in this guise, they beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in October 1930. (The game used to take place well after the season had started). Famously, the Gunners didn’t even contest the occasion in 1971. They had booked lucrative pre-season friendlies against Benfica and Feyenoord which clashed with the Charity Shield. Arsenal eschewed the Shield for the “more lucrative and prestigious events in foreign fields” that Stuart James bemoaned as a modern fad in 1989. In 1972 and 1973, the league champions again refused to take part, so the F.A. moved the fixture to Wembley and mandated participation. Charity begins at home, after all.

Sky Sports were less than charitable in the build up to the 1993 edition too. They were screening the game in Scotland as well as England and at the time, there was a Sunday afternoon television ‘blackout’ legislated north of the border to protect attendances in Scottish football. To televise the match at 3pm would have landed them a £5m fine, so the kickoff time at Wembley was moved to 12.30pm. The FA had the start time of their own event dictated to them by BSKYB. Fortunately, the issue of undue interference from television companies is a relic of a dim and distant past….

Charity (or Community) Shield games have always had a slightly surreal feel. They sit somewhere between friendly and League Cup match on the public’s ‘give a shit-o-meter’, but the fact that they’re often contested between good teams that have a competitive rivalry at least gives them a touch more intensity. Maybe not enough to qualify as ‘needle’, but a pin prick of competitiveness when played between certain teams. Like a nail jutting out from a piece of wood that one could catch one’s clothing on if in too much of a hurry.

The Arsenal v United series of the late 90s and early 2000s were always keenly contested. These games were considered early season psychological markers. Plus, the two sets of players despised one another. In 1998, Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka treated Jaap Stam to a torrid debut as the Gunners powered to a 3-0 win. Teddy Sheringham was teased mercilessly by the Arsenal faithful for his trophyless maiden season at United, something he didn’t forget when the fixture was repeated in 1999, whereupon he gloated ceaselessly about United’s treble. As he warmed up in front of the Arsenal fans, he mimed hoisting trophies and smugly held three fingers aloft as he jogged around the back of the goal. (You give a little, you get a little).

In 2003, Sol Campbell narrowly escaped an FA ban for kicking out at Eric Djemba Djemba, whilst Francis Jeffers was hilariously sent off for booting a prone Phil Neville in the guts. Hard to blame anyone presented with that particular opportunity from taking it, but Arsene Wenger was less impressed. Jeffers was loaned to Everton three days later and never played for the club again. The bad blood from that match lingered as the teams did battle quite literally at Old Trafford a month later. In 2004, an in form Jose Antonio Reyes tore United a new arsehole in Cardiff as Arsenal sauntered to a 3-1 victory inspired by the Spaniard.

Ferguson resolved not to let the Spaniard repeat the performance in a more meaningful fixture and we all remember how he was treated by the Neville brothers when next they met. Similarly, in 2005, the demise of Philippe Senderos’ promising Arsenal career was plotted in a Shield match. It’s easy to forget that the Swiss started the 2005 F.A. Cup Final ahead of Sol Campbell, who was an unused substitute. But when Senderos returned to Cardiff three months later, Didier Drogba bullied him to within an inch of his life, scoring twice in the process. That match stayed with ‘Swiss Tony’ and this unhappy dynamic was repeated several times hence. Arguably, it was a duel that destroyed his Gunners career.

So, does Sunday’s tie between Arsenal and Chelsea matter? Not in a tangible sense. Chelsea played a lucrative friendly in the USA on Wednesday and play another against Fiorentina at Stamford Bridge this coming Wednesday, which rather validates Stuart James’ guttural sigh from over a quarter of a century ago. However, Arsenal’s recent past in the curtain raiser shows that psychological barriers have been both lifted and created. Initially, it would probably be a little underwhelming (and typical) if Wenger broke his duck against Jose Mourinho in what is ostensibly a friendly. However, it could prove to be a valuable psychological marker when the teams meet again in September.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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