In a week when Arsenal fans are again excited about the young talent being produced by the club, this fan is finding himself depressed at the debate that always follows.
A statement along these lines on social media would be common – Yes, that Saka has amazing trickery and Medley seems to have wonderful composure on the ball but neither will make it at Arsenal ultimately. Supporters get excited and then others bring them back down to earth and point out how few of our ongoing Colney production line actually break through and forge a career in the Arsenal first team. Indeed the last time it happened ‘en masse’ was over 30 years ago. Rocastle, Adams, Thomas, Merson, Hayes and co. provided the core of a young side that ended an 18-year wait for a League title.
Modern football – the money, the immediacy of its demands and the impatience of fans and boards means we are unlikely to see it again.
Does this concern an older fan such as myself? Yes, of course it does – but what will never change – and what I am not sure some young Arsenal fans appreciate – is ‘The Arsenal Way’ and ‘The Arsenal Education’ and it is these that make me immensely proud. As you read this, many of you will not understand what I am wittering on about and perhaps I myself did not truly appreciate it until I researched and conducted countless interviews for my book about George Armstrong. It is the way young boys – as they grow into men at our club – are educated beyond football, and have principles and standards instilled in them. It is this education – and the clear understanding of what it means to be a representative of Arsenal Football Club – that led Rocky to say what he did. His famous line ‘Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent’ succinctly summarises The Arsenal Education and The Arsenal Way.
The reason this is important to me and gives me an enormous sense of pride is that this valuable life perspective will continue if the young player leaves Arsenal to pursue his career elsewhere. It is that knowledge that the new club –and football as a whole – will benefit from The Arsenal Education. Values, standards, attitudes and life skills imbued from the age of 8 or 9 upwards by coaches who understand it will stay with these young men and the wider football community will be richer for it.
As Adrian Clarke told me:
“In terms of attitude towards the club he (Armstrong) expected very high standards. He wanted us to look smart, behave in the right manner and give our best on the pitch. No matter what level you play at for Arsenal, from the under-10s to the first team, there was always a code of practice and standard that had to be maintained.”
Now a friend and coaching at Watford Omer Riza tried to summarise the Arsenal Way as instilled in the 1990s under Geordie Armstrong –
“Lessons from Arsenal that I feel have served me well, as a player, as a person and which will be invaluable to me as a coach: firstly, never boast, no matter what you have achieved, and treat everyone with respect and as an individual. You were never just a young player to Geordie; you were an important person, deserving equal respect.”
It was this principle learned at Arsenal that stayed with Riza through his whole career and, remember, despite success elsewhere he never played a first team game at the club.
I know Steve Sidwell, who spent 11/12 years at Arsenal and whose biggest regret to this day is never playing a first team match for the insititution that made him the player and man he is today. However, he left Arsenal well prepared as a player and a person and Reading, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Stoke, Fulham and Brighton all benefited from his Arsenal Education.
The best person to make you understand what I am endeavouring to explain is Greg Lincoln: a man who grow up at Arsenal, and had the values and The Arsenal Way instilled in him by Geordie Armstrong and who I know is back there himself, carrying the baton for the next generation. Both Baka, Medley and the others on the fringes of the Arsenal first team now will have played for and been coached by Greg in their mid-teenage formative years.
When I interviewed him for my book, Greg told me that he felt Geordie Armstrong – after 16 years as a first team player, and then returning as a coach – was ‘the embodiment of the Arsenal way.‘ But what did he mean?
‘It is a way of conducting yourself in the football world, both on and off the pitch and Geordie passed it down from his generation to the next. On the pitch, it was about football intelligence and a thought process that kept you ahead of the game, alongside technique and skill and the ability to know what you wanted to do when you received the ball. Off the pitch, it is about respect for your coaches, your colleagues and those you interacted with from other clubs because you were representing The Arsenal.”
So when you ponder the likelihood of Smith-Rowe, Nelson, Baka and Medley making it at Arsenal perhaps think beyond and consider Arsenal’s contribution to the wider game. We all want our homegrown talent to make it at our club – and it is why many of us vested so much in Jack Wilshere, but equally we should be so proud of our boys that flourish elsewhere because of how our club brought them up. I know I am, and it is why I am so delighted that Chuks Aneke is banging in the goals for MK Dons for example, and why I know that despite a strong contribution with goals and assists for Arnhem 2 years ago, Nacer Barazite’s career has drifted to the Gulf league.
Anyway, I am in danger of digressing and losing the point I am hoping to make. Which is that whether our current exciting crop of young players make it at Arsenal – which would be fabulous, but unlikely for all of them – we should be proud that those that do not will leave well-equipped to succeed at whatever level it is, thanks to their Arsenal Education.
I will leave you with the words of Greg Lincoln, currently passing on to the next batch what Geordie passed on to him..
“It is important for the boys to know that at our football club, we like to develop them as people. We know that they’re not all going to play for our first team but we like to think that, whatever happens to them in their football journey, they leave us, not only as a better footballer, but as a better person as well.”
Well there is a quote to make a true fan proud to be a Gooner – COYG!