Most Arsenal fans will be aware of the success the club enjoyed in the 1930s. When he was hired from Huddersfield in 1925, Herbert Chapman was attracted to the challenge of Arsenal because, until that point, London was a footballing outpost, while clubs in the north dominated the nascent sport.
It took a few years, but Chapman built a dynasty beyond compare. Tragically, he would only live to see a small fraction of it. He led Arsenal to their first ever trophy, the 1930 FA Cup, before securing a first league title in 1931 and then 1933.
He sadly died in the middle of the 1933-34 league title winning season but his able deputies, Joe Shaw and Tom Whittaker saw the Gunners over the line before George Allison, a journalist and broadcaster by trade, took over Chapman’s team and they had enough muscle memory to win the title in 1935 and 1938 and an FA Cup in 1936.
The issue for Arsenal was that Chapman’s team eventually aged out and when the Second World War broke out in 1939, the club was hit even harder than most elite English clubs. Highbury was requisitioned as an air raid shelter and heavily bombed just a few years after the club had overseen an expensive rebuild of the stadium.
The post-war years weighed heavily on the club purse, even if they secured a league title in 1948 and an FA Cup in 1950. After winning the league in 1953, the club endured a 17-year barren spell. The club’s finances had been decimated by the war and damage to the stadium but, also, the club endured an identity crisis.
Even as the team emerged from the financial trauma of the war in the 1960s, when Britain’s economy began to recover and the baby boomers began to rebel against the nation’s (understandable) addiction to its war stories, Arsenal found the ghosts of the 1930s difficult to bear.
Between 1953 and 1968, Arsenal didn’t even contest a cup final and between 1961 and 1965, they didn’t finish higher than 7th while North London rivals Tottenham secured the domestic double at the outset of that timeframe. The narrative became very much one of a fallen club, unable to replicate past glories.
This was a narrative indulged by the players at the time too, who found the pressure of the past difficult. They complained about players from the 1930s being present at every club function, reminding the contemporary players of their inadequacies.
In 1964-65, Arsenal slumped to 13th in the league. Captain Frank McLintock had a suggestion that manager Billy Wright was amenable to. In 1965-66, the Gunners ditched the white sleeves and played in an all red ensemble, an attempt at breaking with the past. It was a move inspired by Don Revie’s Leeds, who switched to an all-white kit earlier in the decade prior to a period of growth for the club.
It didn’t work, Arsenal finished 14th in their off the shelf all red number and Billy Wright left the club that summer. It was a quick win for new coach Bertie Mee to revert to the white sleeves- though he had to wait a season for that change to take effect having missed the kit registration deadline in the summer of 1966 when, fittingly, the England national team achieved something special in an all-red shirt.
Mee did introduce an FA Cup kit however and Arsenal displayed a cannon on the chest of their shirt for the first ever time. The history of the club still weighed heavily on the players. Frank McLintock has since admitted that he lobbied to assistant manager Don Howe to have the pictures of the successes of the 1930s taken down from around the Highbury offices.
Howe would entertain no such thing. “If those pictures bother you,” he is supposed to have countered, “replace them with your own!” It marked an attitude shift at the club, to embrace the glories of the 1930s instead of shying away from them. The cannon became an important symbol to Bertie Mee, a former army sergeant.
While National Service was abolished in the UK in 1960, many men and women of Mee’s age in Britain were still very struck by military imagery. Mee used it to his advantage and had it emblazoned on club blazers and uniforms. He didn’t want to hide Arsenal’s history, he wanted to turn the cannons outwards and use them to inspire his players and intimidate opponents.
Most of you will know what happened next. While Mee was a military man, one of his key players, George Graham, was far more fascinated by all things sartorial- often nicknamed ‘Gorgeous George’ by his teammates, he even opened a tailoring outfit with his good friend Terry Venables in the 1970s.
Even when you see Graham in public now, he is always immaculately turned out with tasselled loafers and a turtleneck beneath a tailored blazer. When Arsenal underwent another drift and identity crisis in the 1980s and they appointed George Graham, it stood to reason that one of his first acts of order was to reinstate the cannon embossed blazer and club tie for away trips.
His managerial style was still very much from the Bertie Mee school of sergeant majoring. But he too understood the symbolic importance of embracing the club’s history and the ‘return to roots.’ As a member of the famous 1971 double winning team, he had the authority and respect to point to the importance of Arsenal’s history and traditions.
When Arsenal Wenger was appointed to the club in 1996, he is rightly credited with modernising an institution which had undoubtedly become a little sepia toned in its outlook. But he too embraced club tradition. Not only was he openly taken by English football culture (he said it was the reason he learned the English language in the first place) he embraced Arsenal’s history.
Many of us expected him to import his own coaching staff. Boro Primorac duly arrived but he retained Bob Wilson and Pat Rice, also members of the 1971 double winning team, on his staff until they retired. He retained the famous back five well into their mid-30s. To him, those totem poles were an important part of the foundation he wanted to build.
That brings us to the present day. Lee Dixon appeared on the Arsenal Vision podcast last week. He shared an anecdote about how Unai Emery ‘neutralised’ Arsenal’s Colney base and had a lot of the Arsenal insignia and images of past glories taken down.
According to Dixon, Emery felt they were overbearing and applied unnecessary pressure to his players. From the outside, that is logical thinking that is easy to follow. But it didn’t work. I think many of us felt that Emery managed Arsenal like a template European club rather than as an individual institution with its own quirks and memories.
Football clubs are a little like football players, some require an arm around the shoulder and some require a kick up the bum. Arsenal, I think, is a club you have to manage with the cannons facing outwards, whose history and traditions are to be used as a strength and something that inspires weakness in opponents.
Mikel Arteta has undoubtedly embraced this. First of all, he has re-Arsenalised the training ground, where now, you can’t move without finding red and white wall panels and framed pictures and paintings many metres tall leaving you in no doubt where, and who, you are.
The player entrance to London Colney now has a huge image of Arsene Wenger on the wall, his palm raised (the idea is that the players high five him upon entry). Arteta, who played and captained the team under Wenger, was always drawn to a particular quote from his former mentor.
The caption next to Wenger’s image reads, “Here you have the opportunity to get out the greatness that is in each of you.” Arteta has embraced Wenger’s legacy and, in December, the former manager returned to Emirates Stadium for the first time since his emotional departure in 2018.
Arteta confidently re-forged that link, encouraging his staff and his players to embrace and adopt Wenger’s legacy, rather than hide from it. Of course, a lot of this is about timing. There is just no way that Unai Emery could have done the same thing even if he had wanted to. There hadn’t been enough distance and there was certainly a need to ‘de-Wengerise’ the setup at that stage.
In his retirement speech as a player in 2016, Arteta spoke warmly about the standards of the club. “The standards you need to play for this club – it cannot be eight out of 10. It has to be 10 out of 10 and if you can’t deliver that, it is not good enough.”
As a former player and captain, Arteta has, like Graham and Mee before him, turned the cannons outwards. He wants his players to know, to feel and to see the history of the club, the weight of expectation and to embrace it as an ally rather than an enemy.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator