North London Giants on Their Knees

The news that Saracens Rugby Club are to be relegated at the end of the current season due to financial irregularities would appear to be a logical conclusion to the scandal which broke in the autumn when the Club was heavily fined and docked 35 points for breaking the salary cap over the past three years. But it was also another indication that the leading sports teams in North London are experiencing life in the doldrums; and the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.

Fireworks over Saracens'
stadium, Allianz Park. Can
the Club maintain its
connection with its fans?

The world of sport was shocked when Premiership Rugby announced in November that Saracens, the most successful club in English and European rugby in recent years was being fined over five million pounds and docked 35 points in the current season, thus sending the Club plummeting from the top to the bottom of the 12-team league. Questions were immediately asked as to whether the Club would release its England players for the Six Nations Championship in February and March 2020. Surely they should stay and help the club fight against relegation?

The announcement now that, whatever happens in the remainder of the season, Saracens will be relegated could be seen as a cynical gesture to help England. As Saracens are now going to be relegated wherever they finish in the table, why not allow their talented international players to go off and play for their country? Apart from anything else, it will give game practice to some of the younger and less well-paid players who can be expected to take the stars’ places next season in the Championship. Or, in their desire for revenge on the team that has dominated the game for so long, did the chairmen of the other Premiership clubs not take that into consideration?

The demise of Saracens, North London’s biggest rugby club, reflects that of the biggest football club in North London, Arsenal, although for different reasons. Indeed, at a time when other clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool especially – were spending huge sums of money improving their squads to challenge for the Premier League title and the European Champions League, Arsenal prioritised spending on a new stadium at the expense of top quality players. It is significant that since moving into the splendid Emirates Stadium in 2006 they have never been able to parade the Premiership trophy, something they did three times during the final eight years at Highbury.

Arsenal’s fall from grace has long roots. In 2004 not only did they win the Premier League, but they did so without losing a single match all season, an unprecedented achievement over so many games.[i] A year later, after a boardroom row, the Vice Chairman, David Dein, left the Club. Dein had been a key figure in the Club’s successes over the previous few years. As well as being a successful businessman, Dein is a keen Arsenal supporter who has an intuitive understanding of the game.

It was Dein who persuaded the Club to buy Dennis Bergkamp, a key figure in the victorious teams of the period from 1997-2005; indeed, arguably the greatest player to pull on the Arsenal shirt. It was Dein who spotted the potential of Arsene Wenger, who with the two “Doubles” of League and Cup, one more League title and two more FA Cup victories over that period became Arsenal’s most successful manager, even outdoing the legendary Herbert Chapman from the 1930s. Dein should never have been allowed to leave.

Will there be light at the end of
the tunnel for Arsenal under
Mikel Arteta?
The year Dein left, Arsenal won the FA Cup in a penalty shootout against Manchester United (a result which would bear out the slogan that “there’s no justice in football”, given the way United had dominated the 120 minutes played). It was to be nine years until they won another trophy, once again the FA Cup. True, they followed up that success in 2014 with two more FA Cup triumphs in the next three years, but apart from gaining the runners-up spot in the League in 2016 (ten points behind the surprise of the century, Leicester City) they haven’t come close to winning the Premier League again.

We live in an age when statistics abound in football. Here’s a sobering one for Arsenal fans: since first winning the First Division in 1931, Arsenal have never gone more than 18 years without the title. To maintain that record, they would have to win the Premier League by 2022. That’s not going to happen.

The rot started to set in under Wenger. It seems that an atmosphere of complacency settled on the club. The management was content with the expected top four so weren’t pressing for anything higher and this was known by the players. So they began to do just enough.

Wenger was “persuaded to step down” (in reality, it was the gentlest sacking in the history of the Premier League, and probably came a few years too late). Then the wrong manager was appointed – letting the players vote for the captain was just one example of Unai Emery’s lack of leadership. The admission by David Luiz, after Arsenal’s victory over Manchester United in one of the first games under Mikel Arteta, that the players aren’t fit was honest but an awful indictment of what had been allowed to happen.

The problems which Arteta has inherited were excellently summed up by Tony Evans in The Independent in his report on the one-all home draw with Sheffield United on 18 January (the eleventh draw out of 23 league games, hardly the form of a team challenging for honours):

One of Arsenal’s biggest problems is a lack of leaders. David Luiz does a fine caricature of leadership with his arm-waving and fingerpointing but no one in the side exudes authority. The vacuum in this department was illustrated when Lucas Torreira was hit in the face and knocked prostrate. During the stoppage in play the Gunners stood around uncommunicative, each player seemingly in their own little world. Meanwhile, the United defence conducted an analysis of their performance so far. Only one side looked like a team.

These are challenging times for the North London giants. It will need the Arsenal management to give Arteta the time and the money to bring Arsenal back to a position where they can once again regularly challenge for major honours. Saracens’ problem is a different one. To avoid breaking the salary cap they are going to have to allow some of their best players to leave; then try to gain promotion back to the Premiership with a weakened squad, while relying on crowds which are modest compared even to the dwindling gates Arsenal have been experiencing. Some, whose knowledge of rugby is much greater than this author’s, are already writing off Saracens as a force in the game. Football or rugby, North London fans can expect more years in the wilderness.


FOOTNOTE: Some may wonder why there is no mention of Tottenham Hotspur in this piece, another North London club going through difficult times. This is because Tottenham is not a giant club. The myth that it is a great club was laid down in 1961, when they became the first team in the twentieth century to do the “Double”. But that league title, only the second in Tottenham’s history, is their latest. Tottenham last won the FA Cup in 1991. Since then, their trophy cabinet has been graced with the League Cup (twice). These are not the statistics of a great club.

[i] Preston North End were unbeaten in the 1888-89 season, but they played only 22 games. Arsenal's achievement in 2003-04 has – so far – been the only instance in the English league of a club remaining unbeaten for a whole season of more than 30 games.

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