By Robert Exley
So is Miss-Nigeria-Holland United or Arsenal?
There are some phrases of everyday language that people so frequently use; it’s as if by their very nature they are now unquestionable self-evident truths. For instance, few people would argue that political correctness has gone mad (or should the correct term be mentally challenged?), or that our Armed Forces are brave and marvellous (isn’t it strange how you never hear anyone say that they’re pro-war but anti the troops?). Few people would argue that when it p*sses it down with rain for most of July, that it isn’t the metrological equivalent of some lonely spinster being conned out of her life savings by a suave bigamist cad who promised so much more. Few people would dare to argue with the premise that Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy are heroes. The merest suggestion that they might be glorified members of a lycra-clad sect who forever jump red lights with frequent disregard for crossing pedestrians is officially akin to happy-slapping a toddler.
Among such truisms is the phrase that ‘Footballers are all just a bunch of overpaid Prima Donnas’ – I mean it is just the case isn’t it, how can anyone argue? - You can’t, just accept it. Well for me, as an historian of Football (an accolade bestowed on me by the same college of higher education that awarded Professor Green and Dr Hook their respective honours) it’s a phrase that I’m slightly uneasy with. This is largely because it wasn’t too long ago (less than half a century ago, in fact) that the conditions of employment enforced on Footballers – such as a maximum wage not much above the average manual wage, the retain and transfer system and living in ‘tied cottages’ owned by their clubs of which they could be evicted from at any moment, was if not the nearest thing to slavery in twentieth century Britain, certainly somewhere near it. Despite 50 years of prosperity and contractual freedom, the discourse that surrounds Football and Footballers hasn’t moved on a great deal either. This offering from the Football Village’s own resident idiot, Ian Holloway, about clubs ‘owning’ players in the same way you would own a house is certainly dubious to say the least.
It’s also odd how some of the most vehement peddlers of the line that Footballers earn too much money rarely have much to say on any other anomalies that a market economy throws up. I’m sure that like me, you must have received the same chain e-mail with pictures of a failed National Football side walking off of a plane, juxtaposed with a picture of a coffin carried from an aircraft, carrying a deceased British serviceman or woman and how the latter should donate two weeks’ wages to Help the Heroes in order to aid the stricken colleagues of the former. However, never once have I received the same e-mail with a picture of a CEO of an oil company or proprietor of a right leaning Newspaper asking the same question, despite the fact that their wage is almost always in excess of a that which a footballer earns and whose attainment of wealth is very often not entirely unlinked to a serviceman or women’s deployment in areas of life threatening danger.
It’s also odd how the wealth of a Premiership footballer of extremely modest talent almost always provokes greater resentment among the public than the wealth of a purveyor of extremely bland music, like say Gary Barlow. Or a limited actor like, say Nicholas Cage. People at the very pinnacle of those two professions are almost always placed higher than top Footballers in the Sunday Times Rich list, if only for the fact that unlike footballers, they rarely are forced to retire at 35 years of age. But then again, Professional Footballers, unlike the music and acting professions, are overwhelmingly from of Working Class backgrounds. Therefore outage at how their earning potential greatly outweighs their social usefulness is going to be muted in comparison.
That said, despite these points pleaded in mitigation, you cannot get away from the feeling that since George Eastham and Jimmy Hill took on the might of the Football establishment and won, the pendulum has definitely swung too far in the opposite direction, if only for how thoroughly objectionable modern footballers have become. In my recent series for the blog site Football Speak to commemorate the London Olympic Games, based around the history and development of Football in the East End of the London, the nineteenth century battles between predominantly upper and middle class amateurism and working class professionalism feature quite heavily. The story of the predecessor side to West Ham United, Thames Ironworks F.C. and their founder Arnold Hills, also the owner of the Ironworks itself is certainly a very apt historical reference point .
Hills, an ex-Harrow Public Schoolboy and former England international who played in the 1877 FA Cup Final for Oxford University was known as a bit of a philanthropist. He formed the Ironworks side as a by-product of his concern for the lack of recreational facilities in the County borough of West Ham. He was also a vehement opponent of professionalism in Football, professing to believe in the Corinthian value that the sport was an end in itself. However you can also cast a cynical eye over Hills’s form and state that despite his unwillingness to pay Footballers a professional wage, it didn’t stop him from charging an admission fee whenever the Irons played at their home ground in Canning Town. Arnold Hills was born into a family of great wealth – ownership of the Ironworks had passed to him on his father’s death in 1893. He also had the benefit of the best education money could buy, however objected to his players having the opportunity to earn a living doing something other than toiling away in the Docks for six days of a week.
It was very much this mind-set which remained within the Football hierarchy until the maximum wage and retain and transfer were abolished in the 1960s – prior to this Footballers could have earned the kind of money that many of the Music Hall stars of the day had done, without charging the working man an arm and a leg for the privilege of viewing. They were however restricted to a wage not too dissimilar from the paying spectator on the terraces. However, despite eighty odd years of systematically setting out to supress Footballers wages, it is extremely depressing that ominous warnings pleaded by the likes of Arnold Hills against Football becoming professionalised look like they are currently being borne out in the modern day Premiership. For instance, this comment by Hills in 1898 could perfectly Xerox many of those from disaffected football fans from today’s football forums across the internet, complaining bitterly that: ‘the committees of several of our clubs, eager for immediate success, are inclined to reinforce their ranks with mercenaries. In our bands and in our football clubs, I find an increasing number of professionals who do not belong to our community but are paid to represent us in their several capacities’.
Also, Dave Russell in his book ‘Football and the English: A Social History of Association Football’, opined that the reason for why the upper and middle classes hated the idea of working class professional footballers was because it would turn ‘a source of pleasure and moral virtue into a mere job of work and, by leaving the professional sportsman with too much time on his hands, render him a highly unsuitable role model for the young working classes’ - and you’d have to say with hindsight that this prophecy of doom isn’t too wide of the mark either. The main perversion of this dystopian view of Football’s future passed on from the Victorian era however is it is now the mercenary players that are acting in conjunction with the sugar daddies to fleece the football supporters, rather than the players being fleeced by the club owners. Also, in the closing years of the nineteenth Century, West Ham’s committee were eager to professionalise in order to gain some independence from the benevolence of their sugar daddy - Arnold Hills. Whereas in the 2010s, every purchase of a mercenary player plunges the football industry deeper into the scenario of a dependence on a collection of various sugar daddies, largely because their wages would otherwise be unsustainable in the market place - which brings us neatly on to the subject of our departed captain.
The balance was tipped in favour of Old Trafford due to their willingness to pay out a 29 year old Striker with a poor fitness record a weekly wage of £220,000 per week – in order to achieve parity with Wayne Rooney, whose own salary demands were met by playing brinksmanship with the United board while their nouveau riche neighbours were watching the situation closely, looking to swoop like the mother of all vultures should Rooney’s demands not be met by Old Trafford. The inflationary pressures created by the petrodollars of the Oligarchs and the spending of their rivals in order to keep up with them are therefore self-evident. And if a club of the size and stature of United feel they can keep up with this level of wage demands in the long term, they may want to cast their eye 215 miles to the North of Manchester for a cautionary warning. Twenty five years ago Glasgow Rangers could have outspent everyone in England. Whereas today, they are merely spent - and so too is the rest of Scottish Football.
Therefore the embodiment of the cash related moral degeneration of the professional footballer over the last half century can be seen by the contrast between two players who have worn the famous red and white of the Arsenal - both of whom were briefly shunned and ostracised for very different reasons, forty six years apart. In the close season of 1959, George Eastham refused to sign a new contract with Newcastle United – his bone of contention had been that the house that the club supplied him and his young family with was inhabitable. He was also unhappy with the secondary job which the club provided him with (yes, footballers actually had to take part-time jobs in order to earn a living wage in 1959!). Unable to leave Newcastle despite his contract expiring, Eastham went on an eight month long strike and foregoing his wages in the process, before signing for Arsenal the following season and pursuing an action for restraint of trade which literally changed the earning potential and lifestyles of British footballers forever after.
Contrast that therefore with Robin Van Persie in the close season of 2005, languishing in a Dutch prison cell for 14 nights, accused of the rape of a former Miss Nigeria-Holland, Sandra Krijgsman after checking into the Tulip Hotel with her and two other gentlemen. Arsenal Football Club stood by Robin Van Persie despite these accusations – rightly so you might say because Robin was cleared of all charges due to a lack of evidence. Well, you’d think so wouldn’t you, but not everyone’s employers are quite so understanding - even if the evidence against you fails to prove your guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. After all, Matthew Kelly and John Leslie seem to be on our television screens a hell of a lot less since accusations of unlawful sexual acts were alleged against them - despite having all charges against them dropped. On a note more relevant to Football, Southampton’s disgraceful treatment of Dave Jones – whose contract was terminated before he even stood trial, shows that the unquestionable support of your employer until proven guilty can never be taken for granted in this game.
In the summer of 2005 Arsenal had a far stronger forward line than they’ve ever had since. Robin’s temperament was viewed as extremely questionable at the end of his first season, as seen from his sending off against Southampton for an unsightly lunge at Graeme Le Saux. This was a match where Arsenal were holding a one goal lead against a ten man side that ended in a 1-1 draw, with Arsenal losing further ground to eventual run away champions, Chelsea. Even the usually one-eyed Arsene Wenger had felt compelled to state his vehement disapproval at Robin’s antics in the post-match interview. Around this time a string of naturally talented young players with an attitude problem were shown the door at Arsenal – such as Jose Reyes, David Bentley and Jermaine Pennant. In the heat of the rape allegations against him it would have been easy to have added Robin Van Persie to that list. Arsenal however, faithfully stuck by their protégé. For successive seasons also, Robin was blighted by injury problems and, with the exception of last season, often failed to complete a whole season without a lengthy lay off. Again Arsenal could have cut their losses but did choose to stick with RVP through such turbulent periods in his career development.
The Robin Van Persie of 2012 however – though undoubtedly proven in the ability to place a football between two sticks and crossbar – is considerably less proven in the field of running business or a managing a football side. Despite this, he is now suddenly emboldened enough to lecture Arsenal Football Club on their future strategy. That is of course taking the claim in his statement six weeks ago that ‘Financial terms or a contract have not been discussed, since that is not my priority at all’ in good faith. One also assumes that if Robin feels that playing amongst a side of well-paid superstars represents his best chance of winning trophies, perhaps he might dwell on why this didn’t happen with his national side in the Euros this summer, which made the woeful England early exit look as heroic as Mo Farah in comparison. Robin of course – like George Eastham in 1960 - has every legal right to withdraw his labour from one club and join another of his free choice once his contractual obligations have been served, even if they happen to be one of our main rivals. However it’s also worth considering that everyone has the legal right to break wind in a crowded lift should they have the desire to do so – sometimes common decency should override your legal right of free choice, Robin.
After his final league appearance for Arsenal last May, Robin had claimed that ‘whatever happens, I love this club’. Having followed Robin Van Persie on Twitter for the last twelve months, he has often tweeted his love for his elegant spouse – Bouchra Van Persie, despite cheating on her by indulging in sexual congress with a former Miss Nigeria-Holland (which is one allegation from that night’s events seven years ago that Robin does not refute). Therefore, given his track record it might be an idea for Robin to actually sit down and reassess what the word ‘love’ actually means – that is of course if he can tear himself away from counting the zeros on the end of his salary for five minutes!
*Follow me on Twitter@robert_exley
22nd August 2012
User Comment and Reaction
User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.
JenniferJoseph 12:44pm 22nd Aug 2012
Convolted and impossible to read. This is the internet. - Post No. 28126
nobby 13:08pm 22nd Aug 2012
Very interesting read, thanks. (I think the comment about Eastham's house should read uninhabitable) - Post No. 28139
Mike Stefan 13:39pm 22nd Aug 2012
Excellent piece. Fans indeed have short memories. Best article on OnlineGooner for quite a while. - Post No. 28150
Joe Fitzpatrick 15:12pm 22nd Aug 2012
@JenniferJoseph- if you find this piece to be impossible to read then I'm suprised that you managed to operate a P.C. To get online In the first place. Interesting read Robert, cheers. - Post No. 28162
Dave 15:17pm 22nd Aug 2012
I used to have a QPR supporting/Arsenal hating friend, who every Sunday from January 2004 until the end of the season, would say of Arsenal: ‘they’ll come unstuck this week’. Every Sunday without fail, he would say the same thing as the unbeaten run stretched on, ‘mark my words, they’ll come unstuck this week’. As we know, my sour friend was wrong; Arsenal, in spite of all the odds, never came unstuck, winning the league unbeaten. A lot of Arsenal fans and the board are looking at Chelsea and Citeh in the same way now in financial terms, hoping for it to all go wrong. It’s a dangerous game for Arsenal to play, especially as there’s a fat cat/bloke who’s itching to lavish billions of Rubles on the club. You’ve used Rangers as a cautionary tale of over-spending, but far more clubs (and businesses) have gone bust just by trying to safely balance the books. Surely Chelsea’s success over the past 7 years would be preferable to Arsenal’s financial solidity? - Post No. 28163
Herbert 15:32pm 22nd Aug 2012
Convoluted, over analysed, poor understanding, terrrible article. This seems to be the norm on the gooner these days - Post No. 28166
buggleskelly 16:05pm 22nd Aug 2012
Just on a point of historical fact - and nothing to do with football - Matthew Kelly's rarer appearances on the small screen have absolutely nothing to do with the accusations against him. After 20-odd years of hosting "shiny floor" shows, (and being paid very well indeed for doing it),of his own volition he returned to that part of the profession for which he was originally trained, namely as an actor, particuarly stage acting. He's currently playing in EDUCATING RITA, with Claire Sweeney, most recently at the Edinburgh Festival. - Post No. 28171
Quartzgooner 16:36pm 22nd Aug 2012
So you are saying "Do not trust a man who has had a bit on the side?" In that case why trust Wenger? - Post No. 28172
billthered 17:27pm 22nd Aug 2012
Well the fact is we support Arsenal Football Club and we all want what's best for us and two hoots for everyone else.Have we forgotten the saga surrounding Sol Campbell a few years ago and how we laughed at the spuds because we got him for zilch.Well at least Arsene does not let that happen and none of us ever thought that Sol loved our club it was just business and very good business at that. - Post No. 28178
Peter Wain 18:39pm 22nd Aug 2012
I do not agree with the statements about RVP. If the owner (what a joke) board (biggest waste of space ever) and manager had done their jobs RVP would not have left. Judging by Monday's performance its Rooney who should be worried about his place. RVP served our club well and was let down and was perfectly entitled to go elsewhere. In twenty years time what is he going to say. I won an FA cup medal with Arsenal and stayed but we didn't win anything else or even tried to due to financial fair pay. FFP is a useful tool to say that for the last 5 years we have sold more than we bought and even in this window that will not change. Next year Chamberlain and Wiltshire will be be sold but never fear Diaby will be fit so it will be like getting a new player and also Bendtner Park and Chamak will still be around!!! They will probably all have new contracts if Gazidis is doing the negotiating. - Post No. 28181
ppp 0:57am 24th Aug 2012
I agree the article was a bit all over the place but there was some interesting stuff in there. Thanks for writing it. - Post No. 28232
15th May 2013
Online Ed: Job done in final home game of the season