Written by Mean Lean on Friday, 20 July 2012 10:16
Rob was an obsessed Arsenal supporter, but he was even more obsessed about football. He wanted to be a professional and had been training from a very young age to try and make a career in the game. The most dedicated kid you could imagine. He would go to our local, Tufnell Park playing fields on his own and practice shooting and passing with his weaker left foot for hours upon hours. He took care of himself only eating healthily and didn't go out with his 16-17 year old friends on the hunt for alcohol and girls. I was one of those friends but we all respected Rob's passion and desire to make it in the game.
Rob was a machine when playing football, didn't make mistakes on the pitch thanks to all the hard graft he had put in. He was quicker, faster and stronger than the rest of us and I was certain that my mate would make the grade.
He had many trials and was accepted at a number of clubs, Peterborough being one of those clubs. He was offered deals to stay on and become part of the youth set up but he refused. He turned down a few clubs at the time. I couldn't understand why he would do that but Rob was very principled, way before his late teens. He knew what he wanted and the clubs he had trialled with were simply not right. Those clubs smashed the ball high from back to front, he was asked to do the same and not worry about getting the ball down and playing. It was the type of football that Tony Pulis would feel warm inside about.
Rob was a footballer and playing football the right way was very important to him, he knew he wouldn't enjoy the long ball game and declined. He played semi professional football but never got to where he wanted. He didn't regret it a few years later and I wonder if he does so now, when he gets back from travelling, I think I will ask him again.
A group of us used to go to Highbury pretty much every week in the early 90's and we used to spend our spare time talking about Arsenal until we were blue in the face. Alan Smith was Rob's hero, not that he played anything like him, different players and different positions but Alan Smith was the one player that Rob adored. He loved the fact that he was a good guy, a nice guy. Very much like Rob. Sam who lived around the corner from the both of us loved Ray Parlour and I was the worlds biggest Anders Limpar fan.
It was different back then, the game was viewed differently. We were one of the biggest clubs in England behind Liverpool but up there with the sleeping giant that was Manchester United who hadn't won the league since 1966/67.
We were not the large European force that we are today, we were a strong English club that had always done things sensibly and the right way but for the most part that was the case across the board. Clubs spent what they could afford and those at the top of the tree usually earned that right to be there.
Fast forward to December 2006 and the cost of the season tickets at the Emirates coinciding with having a young family meant that I had to give up my season ticket and hand over my cash to Sky television instead. We were playing Porto away from home in an important Champions League game so I called Rob to meet me in a pub on Holloway road to watch the game together, something we hadn't done in some time given our different paths in life but I was excited to meet up with an old Arsenal friend of mine.
The game was tense the fake, fake Ronaldo. You know the guy, Quaresma. He hit the woodwork at least once, perhaps twice and I had my head in my hands. A draw would have seen us advance to the next round but we were fully under the cosh. I was a wreck but Rob didn't behave in the way that I was. He was doing things such as going to the toilet in the middle of an attack or pop off to get a drink during a goalmouth scramble. I thought it was a little unusual at the time but I refrained from asking any questions at full time, I think I was just happy that we had done enough on the night. 0-0 if I remember rightly.
It was a few months later that my friend Rob opened up to me about his divorce from football. About how he had fallen out of love from the game that he felt so much for since we were kids. He told me how much he hated what the game had become. He explained how the connection between the players and the supporters was nothing like it was before. There would never be another Alan Smith to Rob. Footballers were cheats, arrogant and just not very nice people on the whole, they were not the type of people he likes in the real world so why would he support them he told me.
Money was running the game and he wanted out. Arsenal FC wasn't the same to Rob but it was the Sky era that had pushed the game into the wrong direction. Or at least in 1992/93 it was the beginning of the wrong direction.
But that was Rob, he had principles and he would never go against those principles. To a certain extent I understood and agreed with much of what he said. Football had changed, there was no getting away from that but Arsenal were always Arsenal. Rob was just being extreme, he was often very extreme about things. That was his character. You cannot just simply fall out of love with football.
Well that is what I told myself back in 2006.
Six years later, I am beginning to understand a lot more what he was getting at. This is the first pre-season for many years where I have lost some of that excitement, that anticipation.
We could well see yet another one of our players go to a club with 'ambition' a club that are going places, a club that want to win trophies. This is speak for a club who have money to throw around like it is water.
Moving for trophies is a convenient excuse for players nowadays. If Manchester City were paying the same wages as we are, do we really believe that Nasri would have left Arsenal? Would Emmanuel Adebayor have joined City on the same wages he was on at Arsenal?
Why haven't Arsenal players in the past left Arsenal to join Manchester United? (hope I haven't jinxed that) The most successful team in English football. It is the same reason why Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva have now signed for 'ambitious' PSG from such a huge historical club like AC Milan.
But after all is said and done, can you really blame these players for doubling or in some cases tripling their wages? Not really. While they are getting insane amounts of money as it is, human nature always wants more.
Billionaire owned clubs have inflated transfer fees and wages of football players and if it continues then what does the future of football have in store for us? A sport where clubs are purely a vehicle to show off which billionaire has the largest manhood. That isn't football at least from the way I used to know it.
I was having a recent conversation with a Chelsea supporting friend of mine. He has always been a Chelsea fan way before Roman and his wealth came into play. Alex is an accountant and is one of the brightest people I know. We were discussing Arsenal's strategy and direction. His response was 'why don't you just find a billionaire owner' without any flicker of emotion. I was astonished that those words had come from his mouth.
It now seems accepted that the only way to compete and go forward is to find a billionaire who fancies throwing his money around to compete with other billionaire owners. You have players telling us how much they love the club and how they are fans of the club only to be nudged by their agents and informed that they could earn four times more playing in Ligue one in France.
I am being told that Manchester City are now a massive club. Since when? All it takes is a wealthy business man to come along purchase his toy club of choice and then overnight they are a massive, ambitious club. That is not right.
Winning trophies is about buying as many stars as you can to topple to other billionaires who have just bought their collection of stars. Those who didn't hit the ground running or who were subjected to injury will have been left behind and then farmed out on loan or sold for a fraction of their stupidly over inflated original price.
Whatever happened to coaching players? Bringing them up from the youth, forgiving their mistakes because you know that they will improve. A good summers business could make you a title contender. Back in the nineties Ron Atkinson bought Dean Saunders from Liverpool and partnered him with Dalian Atkinson, they had a good midfield behind them and they nearly won the league. That cannot happen today because the financial gap is ridiculously wide. I really enjoyed that Villa team back then.
I have said this before but do you really believe that we would have seen the invincible team if it was constructed today? Not because of the competition but the squad would have been ripped apart before it was completed. Robert Pires would have been offered £270k per week after his second full season to join Manchester City or Chelsea. Thierry Henry would not have been allowed to stay and reach his peak, Patrick Vieira would have been prized away far earlier. That side did not turn up over night and win trophies, they had failure, they made mistakes and Arsene had to piece them together bit by bit. Much in the way that he has tried to do in the last seven years.
I love Dennis Bergkamp's quote from back in the day.
"I really love Arsenal, but do you love Arsenal or Arsenal with Trophies?"
I think some people should take heed and to be honest I have never quite understood the fist banging 'I need trophies' wailing by so many. It is a lovely bonus, something the club should be aiming for but a quick look at our history will tell you that historically we have never won trophies every season. That is my own view and I respect that others feel differently. Everyone is different. What I find difficult is not having players who stay towards the end of their careers. Fans need those players after investing so much emotion into their heroes.
I miss the respect our club used to have from players. Playing for Arsenal should be a massive honour to players.
It reminded me of the story about David Rocastle being told he was going to be sold. He pleaded with George Graham not to sell him and the late great man wept as he cleared out his locker. His pay packet was secondary to the platform at where he was able to express his talents. But times have changed, the balance of power leans towards the players and by extension, their agents.
I have no problem that we are not able to compete with the higher end in terms of transfer fees. A team like Manchester United who have a large stadium and some of the very best commercial contracts give them that advantage. Why not after their success but it is watching financially doped clubs whisk away our top players that really gets my goat.
I would back Arsene to build a squad of players with all players under the £15m price range and eventually develop into a team that can win trophies. The invincibles was the best example of that but unfortunately for him his players do not stick around long enough to repeat earlier success.
But here is what gets to me the most, Arsenal are the club that are ridiculed. Arsenal are the club who are pointed at and giggled at by the written media, opposition fans and even our own who are using the van Persie situation to twist the knife just that little bit more. It is Arsenal that are sneered at for passing the ball and not being 'British' enough. I must be living in a warped parallel universe.
We are one of the few big clubs who are standing on our own two feet, trying to organically grow our club by building a new stadium. We are the team looked upon by so many as if we are abnormal.
This isn't to say that everything at the club is correct, it isn't. Supporters are rightly annoyed at the ownership squabbles and why the new owner has hardly spoken a word to the supporters about his vision and where he wants to take the club.
We have made contractual mistakes which has weakened our hands etc etc but on the larger scale, we are doing a good job considering we have the candle burning at both ends. We have to make yearly payments on a stadium as well as being tied up in poor but at the time, necessary commercial deals. Disadvantages that other clubs simply do not have, yet this is rarely ever mentioned when it comes to talking about competing financially. We are expected to compete financially with teams who can simply say 'ok. just up that by another £15 million'
The one person I look at without skepticism is our manager, Arsene Wenger. Like those young players who come through the ranks, our manager has made mistakes, it would be ridiculous to think that any manager has gone through a career without making many errors along the way but he, like Rob has stuck by his principles. Stuck to what he believes in. Rob had the chance to play professional football but turned that down. Arsene Wenger had the chance to manage other clubs with a larger 'war chest' on top of a much larger salary but he also turned those opportunities down because he has the club in his heart, just like us.
Many supporters doubt his ability but you can never doubt his commitment and unfortunately that commitment is being shown less and less by players these days.
Robin van Persie was supposed to be one of us, he said he was. And now he can send out a statement like that. Now I feel like that person who will find it difficult to have a relationship again after being hurt one too many times. I look at the players I once adored very cynically now and that does not feel right. In fact it feels rather uncomfortable.
Jack Wilshere looks different all of a sudden, Theo Walcott is already half way out of the door in my eyes. Perhaps it is a type of protection to avoid recent pain.
I am almost waiting for the brave FFP in shining armour to gallop in on horse back and save us from the route of all evil but I cannot hear anything. Not a trot. The renaming of Manchester City's stadium to the Etihad pretty much blew that thought out of the water for me.
The Premier League have sold the domestic broadcast rights from 2013-16 for £3.018bn, with BSkyB and BT the two winners
£3.018bn!!! Football is about money and money only now. The Premier League is nothing but a brand, that brand will not be compromised to even out the playing field.
Where football goes from here is anyone's guess. I am losing faith in football and I want that faith back once more. Some could say it is sour grapes and how would I react to Arsenal being in the same situation as Manchester City. The honest answer to that would be this. I would love to see the best players at my club, watching players at the peak of their powers but the idea of Arsenal FC being run like a computer game does not sit right with me at all. The idea of flushing our history and tradition down the drain makes me shudder. Like Dennis, I fell in love with Arsenal because they were Arsenal and nothing else.
Unlike Rob though, I cannot see myself cutting off completely from football and especially from Arsenal. As disillusioned as I am from the game, I still love watching a good first touch. A well timed run and a through pass. I love an interception and quick break. I am clinging onto these small things and hoping for change, positive change. I want football to be about football again and not Sky television, sponsors or billionaire owners.
I won't hold my breath.