by Steve Stammers
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 268 June 2009
The very first match played by Arsenal Football Club took place on December 11, 1886, after a whip round a few days earlier at the Royal Oak pub in Woolwich had raised the necessary funds (three shillings and sixpence) to purchase a football. The “pitch” was on the Isle of Dogs. It was oblong, with boundaries provided by adjoining back gardens. An open sewer ran across the playing surface.
Today, Arsenal’s 143-acre training facilities alone, at Colney, contain ten FA standard pitches, a restaurant with a Cordon Bleu chef, a swimming pool with moveable floor, power baths, a media and education centre and staff offices the size of first class airport lounges. Author Steve Stammers cannot resist drawing superfluous contrasts between then and now in this compendious history, which takes in everyone from Herbert to Lee Chapman, Caesar Llewellyn Jenkins (Arsenal’s first international) to Gus Caesar. However, it is the early part of this account that is by far the most entertaining.
The first towering figure in the club’s history was Henry Norris, a property developer and first-class wheedler who initially had plans to merge Arsenal with Fulham but when forced to choose between the two teams became chairman at Arsenal. An autocrat whose edicts included one that Arsenal should sign no player under 5ft 8in, it was he who engineered the arch conniving that led to the Gunners being promoted to the first division in 1919 in place of Spurs, despite having only finished fifth in the second division – the matter was decided by vote. This, coupled with Arsenal having moved north of the river and invaded Spurs’ patch, sealed the enmity between the two teams forever.
There are other great characters: Charlie Buchan, who initially left the club following a dispute over expenses amounting to 55p; Eddie Hapgood, who had to be persuaded off a vegetarian diet in order to beef up for the team; and manager Herbert Chapman, the great modernist, whose tactical acumen, advanced thinking and psychological cunning would probably have well equipped him to manage in the top flight today.
In the lean post-war years, Stammers fills in with a bit of pop cultural analysis, concluding that manager Billy Wright was a “man out of time” unable to cope with the broader cultural changes affecting football in the 1960s. The closer his account gets to the present day, however, the more evident are its shortcomings. Match reports are dulled by phrases such as “Dutch masters” and “the deadlock was broken”, while accounts of such epochal fixtures as the 1989 League-winning decider at Anfield are perfunctory and unilluminating. Despite the success and revolutionary flair of the Wenger era, the last few sections comprise dreary season-by-season accounts. This being an “official” history, penetrative and potentially critical analysis is precluded – Stammers is even coy about referring directly to pre-war striker Alex James’s alcoholism. There are some fine photos however, particularly of the pre-war teams, in which 62-year-old managers appear to be putting a team of 57-year-olds through their paces.