This piece by Julian Harris (@gingers4limpar) first appeared in the Arseblog book ‘So Paddy Got Up’, published December 2012. It’s an interesting to have a read of this again, particularly in light of recent stories about the second largest shareholder looking to sell his stake-holding in the club.

Cheers to nik for the reminder.

What is Arsenal?

Julian Harris

What is Arsenal? I put this question to a mass of Gooners on the popular Interweb forum, Twitter, and quickly gained a stream of pithy explanations of what fans associate with the club. Some notable points from the findings: Around one in six responses included the word, “class”. The same number mentioned, “tradition” and / or “heritage”. Even more mentioned Highbury, many specifying the Marble Halls.

Several described, “doing things the right way”. A few included, “innovation”. Astonishingly, the most flattering and complete response came from a Leeds United fan, “You [Arsenal] have had the perfect balance between heritage, tradition and modernity,” stated the gentleman simply known as Al. Thanks, Al.

Admittedly, it was not the first compliment about Arsenal I’ve heard from a Leeds fan. A couple of hours after our boys trounced them 4-1 at Elland Road in 2002, a thick Yorkshire accent echoed across a towncentre pub’s toilets, where I was busy removing several pints of ale from my system (they actually talk at urinals, up north, I have learned). “You hammered us t’day,” the friendly Leeds fan said. ‘What a nice chap’, I thought, and made some attempt at an affable, albeit awkward, response. “Yeah thanks, we, errr, we did ok.” But it wasn’t over yet. The conversation, I mean.

“The only thing I don’t like about this Arsenal side,” he continued – and then detailed a complaint so racist that my precious southern liberal conscience renders it unprintable. Suffice to say, our team that day included Kanu, Toure, Lauren, Campbell, Vieira, Wiltord, Cole and Henry. I’m sure you can work it out.

Bigotry aside, however, it was a cracking trip, and several thousand Gooners happily boarded trains back to the capital, all singing and lager-filled and what-have-you. But for every near-perfect away day like this, there is a dull and lengthy round-trip to witness a demoralising defeat, or some other annoyance. On driving back down the seemingly-never-ending M1-A1 after Sunderland’s last-second equaliser in September 2010, I could not help but ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’

Why had I just spent over £100 on yet another away game, to a stadium I’d already visited twice? Why was I so miserable? Why was I shouting expletives at Stan Collymore on the car’s radio? Why didn’t the defence just bloody hoof the ball clear? But why did I care? Why do I have a red cannon tattooed for life on the left side of my chest?

Why did you buy this book?! It is quite possible, Reader, that you too have pondered – or are pondering – such questions. For most of us, supporting the team is a continuation from childhood. To borrow from Fever Pitch: Arsenal winning trophies is the only thing we have consistently and passionately wanted since we were at school. Yet for children, it makes more sense. Children cling onto interests, suddenly and capriciously; they idolise certain adults; they dream about victory; they run around kicking a ball at any opportunity; they like wearing colourful outfits.

None of these things apply once we have become cynical, miserable, lazy and inactive adults. So why do we still bother? One answer was contained amidst my aforementioned Twitter survey. Too many people to ignore said either, “my dad” or, “my granddad” when asked what they most associated with Arsenal. I suspect in years to come that “mum” and “grandma” may enter the equation, but for now it seems that father/son footballing relationships remain dominant.

The rise of Internet genealogy in recent years is a symptom of people’s on-going quest for continuity and heritage. Thankfully Arsenal provides us with tradition and heritage aplenty. Dare I suggest that our club is perhaps more wedded to its past than any other in England? Other clubs often point to one or two defining periods in their past; yet while the 1930’s are assumed to be Arsenal’s glory era, the team also won league titles in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s.

Moreover, the club’s transition from one era to the next – from Chapman to Allison, from Graham to Wenger – is a mirror of the lineage of so many Arsenal supporting families. The journey from one generation to another is often fraught with troubles,
fall-outs and failings, yet the name stays intact and the DNA continues its evolution. Players, and some managers, quickly come and go; the club remains constant. Yet this merely raises the need to examine our original question – What is the club? What is Arsenal?

Around two thousand years ago – even before Spurs last won the league – a Greek historian, philosopher and all-round intellectual type named Plutarch posed this conundrum: If a ship is repaired over a period of time, having each of its bits of timber
replaced one by one, is it still the same ship? The ship may look similar, and perform the same function, but all the timbers are different.

In terms of its logistical, material make-up, Arsenal Football Club is at least 99 per cent different to when it was founded in 1886. The stadium is different, the training ground is different and players are different. Indeed, every fan is different. All the pieces have been replaced, several times over, during the club’s long and varied history. Yet it is still the same club, right? “We” moved to Highbury in 1913, didn’t we? “We” won five league titles in the 1930’s, right? That was Arsenal, the same club we still support, and not some alien historical entity.

Fortunately for this chapter, I am firmly on the side of the ancient sophists who confident stood up and declared, “Yes, it is the same ship!” The individual components of A Thing, I would argue, do not themselves comprise the meaning of The Thing. Rather, the meaning comes from how those components interact. And thus, even by changing those components entirely over time, if the replacement components combine to produce some kind of on-going effect, then The Thing is still the same Thing.

To put it another way, I’ll paraphrase a more modern and less highbrow writer than Plutarch – Bill Bryson. Over the years of your life, the particles that make up your body replace themselves over and over again. You are losing particles right now. Yet you are still you. Whereas, if you sat there and unpicked each atom one by one from your body, with a pair of tweezers, you would just end up with an atomic cloud by the side of this book, that bore no resemblance to you whatsoever. It is not what you are made of that counts, it is how it all comes together.

In conclusion – Arsenal does still exist. Hurrah! It is therefore little surprise that fans associate both themselves and the club with its history, and cling onto bygone eras. It gives purpose and backbone to the current, fleeting moments. You’re not just watching a millionaire in a Nike top; you’re watching a player who, whether he knows it or not, is continuing the unique innovation of putting white sleeves on red shirts. You’re supporting the team with the cannon that harks directly back to the club’s foetal period amongst the grimy machinery of the Woolwich Arsenal.

Arsenal, I feel, strive for identity and meaning more than other clubs, perhaps because we are not inherently and directly associated with a geographical location. On top of the departure from Woolwich almost a century ago, the club’s modern-era names – both “The Arsenal” and “Arsenal” – suggest an entity several degrees above mere geographical concerns. Can you imagine a chapter of a book beginning: “What is Colchester United?” The second line would presumably read: “A football team from Colchester.” End of chapter.

The same goes for Newcastle United, Gillingham, Aberdeen, Olympique Marseille, et cetera. I do not mean to belittle these clubs, each of which I am sure has a fascinating history, but there is undoubtedly something different about the Arsenal, reflected in its unique name. While the club is certainly now anchored in its Islington surrounds, and proudly established as north London’s premier team, its legacy and meaning extends beyond this geographical pin – which is perhaps what attracts so many fans from throughout the world.

The respect for the club’s history is on-going, with a new group of fans digging into the club’s past and, even today, unearthing new evidence. Arsenal historian Tony Attwood, for example, believes that Henry Norris – controversial chairman and part-owner in much of the 1910’s and 1920’s – has largely been misrepresented and wronged by history’s authors.

“There should really be a statue of him outside the stadium,” Attwood told me. “He’s basically the club’s founding father, arguably even more so than Herbert

I spoke to Attwood and his colleague, Andy Kelly, about the ownership of Arsenal – another issue that seems to separate us from the norm. Arsenal is currently the only truly big club or top team in England that has not succumbed to being owned outright by some playboy kleptocrat or dubious group of businessmen. Despite Stan Kroenke accruing around two thirds of the Arsenal, independent owners, most of whom are fans, still own thousands of shares (around five per cent of the club). Supporters have created the new Fanshare scheme to boost fan-ownership.

In summary – several thousand fans own Arsenal stock, and have legal powers to hold the board to account. For much of the last century, the club was largely owned by dynasties such as the Bracewell-Smiths and Hill-Woods (another Arsenal quirk). Yet the club has a history of encouraging plurality of ownership right back to its genesis.

“Between 1886 and 1893 the club was run as a mutual co-operative,” Kelly explains. “The club was owned by its members on a one-member-one-vote basis, it was run by a committee with a chairman who was voted for by the members. Anyone could be a member by paying a subscription.”

In 1893 it became a Limited Liability Company with three-quarters of the shares up for grabs to the public. More shares were later issued, particularly when the club ran into financial trouble. Henry Norris “made very serious efforts to sell shares to people in Woolwich,” according to Attwood. Norris told local fans that if they invested in the club, it would stay rooted in its locality. But the take-up was not sufficient, attendances were poor, and the club moved north of the river.

Another share issue was conducted to raise money for the construction of Highbury, Attwood says, with a large amount bought by local north Londoners – presumably keen to disassociate themselves with that lot up the road. However, a lot of shares were lost through the decades, hence a large number of “orphan” shares, and the majority of the club became owned by the aforementioned well-to-do families, who finally sold out to David Dein, Danny Fiszman, and later Kroenke and Russian Alisher Usmanov.

Supporter-ownership, in my opinion, is important and healthy for the club. For most fans, the relationship with the club extends well beyond watching a bunch of modern players and hoping they win over 90 minutes. It is a more permanent and, we hope,
meaningful interaction. We are part of the club, like those bits of timber, each playing a part – often throughout most of our lifetimes – to contribute to its journey.

This is why we drive to Sunderland, or Derby, or get on an extremely dodgy-looking ex-Soviet plane to attend a European Cup away game in Ukraine. And this is why, when asked, ‘What is Arsenal?’ on Twitter, we immediately think of the history, the heritage and even the ethics that we feel the club holds – or should hold. Note the consistency in the responses: rather than people attaching their own supposed ethics to the club, fans generally gave the same responses. Arsenal means innovation, it means class, and it means doing things the right way.

It is for this reason that the tragically-lost David Rocastle – officially my first favourite Arsenal player, even before Anders Limpar – is so embedded in Arsenal folklore, and celebrated for his famous imperative: “Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent.”

Despite becoming cynical, miserable, lazy and inactive adults, we still need hope. We still seek identity and enjoy being part of something bigger. Arsenal, irrespective of the team’s up and downs, gives us all of this. More than just a team that represents a town, it is a club that we are all part of, with a unique identity, a strong heritage, yet also an unfettered enthusiasm for innovation and change.

This is why I am Arsenal, and I suspect it is why you’re Arsenal, too.


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