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Football: Stadiums and Managers; the Circus Goes On

The dismissal of Unai Emery as manager of Arsenal comes as no surprise. Despite the fact the club seemed to see him as the one to take them forward he never seemed to be the right ‘fit’ at the Emirates. But then, can any manager (or head coach, if you prefer) be that much-desired ‘fit’?

Jose Mourinho never really seemed to be ‘right’ at Manchester United, although he did very well for Chelsea, twice, and time will tell if it works for him at Tottenham. It may well do as he has arrived at the club probably at the best time, with the new stadium now established and a squad that might still be lacking in some respects but if nothing else, Mourinho knows what it takes to win something. One can be reasonably sure of two things; Tottenham will indeed win a trophy very soon and having done so, Mourinho will then be sacked sometime after that.

Unai Emery (Amir Hosseini)

What of ‘Spur’s previous manager, Mauricio Pottechino? Having made his name at Southampton, his appointment in North London was a good one and the Argentinian did well. His credentials as a coach have indeed been burnished by his time at both clubs – so where did it go wrong for him? Pochettino’s problem was the same one that Arsene Wenger and subsequently Unai Emery encountered just across town. The two clubs built big new stadiums and the financial fallout hindered both. Would Arsenal have been better off remaining at Highbury? Possibly, but there is little doubt that the Gunner’s former home was past its sell-by date and the same applied to White Hart Lane. Arsenal did not move very far; its only 477.93 metres or 1,568.02 feet from the centre-spot of what was Highbury’s playing surface to the same point at the Emirates. Tottenham moved even less distance as the club owned most of the land around the old ground and earned a sizeable income from rents paid by the businesses that occupied some of that land. All they did was shift the stadium a little way north, essentially on the same site. By comparison, West Ham United moved a greater distance from their old ground at Upton Park; its 2.45 miles between the two (Manchester City went 2.65 miles from Maine Road to the Etihad).

Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur still had to relocate businesses already on the two sites and pay the costs of that in addition to the huge amounts paid for actually designing and building the new stadiums (unlike West Ham and Manchester City) – and herein lies at least part of the key; both new stadiums are not only big but also architecturally striking in design. One could almost say that both are statements of the two clubs; ‘Look at us! We are big! We are important!

That bigness has to be paid for so the costs of construction were huge. Did it have to be so? What are, or were, those statements intended to convey? Intent - a desire to not only cater for bigger attendances but to attract players of the highest calibre so that trophies would be won and revenue increase? Or was it merely to have a big ground to say that these clubs are of equal standing to those other big clubs not just in England but across Europe? There is just one problem; neither Arsenal nor Tottenham Hotspur has the trophy-laden history of Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and others. Neither of course did West Ham or Manchester City. The Hammer’s move hasn’t turned the club into a force in football but Manchester City has become very rapidly dominant, although they have still to win big in European competition.

Arsenal's Emirates Stadium (Kieran Lynam)

The difference between Manchester and North London is one of money; City had and continues to have, serious cash behind them, to the point where it could be said they have bought their recent success. That may well be true but big clubs have always bought success. All clubs across Europe that have been successful maintained that success by continually investing in players from outside their home turf. But they also developed their own players, bringing in young talent from established youth set-ups. Not all of those young players were locally born however. Despite their stellar careers with Manchester United, often forgotten is that George Best was from Northern Ireland. Bobby Charlton is from the north-east of England, not the north-west.

This concept was taken to the ultimate by Arsenal and Arsene Wenger however. His record for winning was not particularly great when he arrived at the club in 1996 (one league title with Monaco and two cup wins in Japan) but again he was the right ‘fit’ at the right time. Arsenal have always had money but their history had lain in the far distant past rather than the modern era and Highbury, also known simply as the Arsenal Stadium, represented one of the gems of football when it was rebuilt in the form it became known for. Despite that, for thirty years up until 1970-71, the trophy-winning record was modest. The late 1980s saw success return to the club before another period of relative mediocrity ensued. Not until the arrival of Wenger did the club become consistent as winners.

Arsenal’s record under Wenger for nine seasons was remarkable and it’s true to say that the Frenchman revolutionised English football, at least within the country. By the time the club left Highbury in 2006, led by Wenger himself, English football clubs had stopped signing English players and new stadiums were springing up, or had sprung up, everywhere. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? The stadiums were certainly for the better but many of them were not the extravagant structures built and paid for by Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. A look at Derby, Middlesbrough, Southampton, Sunderland, Leicester, Stoke City, Wigan Athletic (built while they were in the Premier League) and a number of others lower down the chain reveal broadly similar layouts and design, settled upon because they were comparatively inexpensive to build.

None of these stadiums however (with two exceptions, Manchester City being one) have led to the clubs using them to become regular title winners, particularly Arsenal. The other exception is Manchester United. But Old Trafford is probably unique in not only being on the same site as it always has been but also, right from the very start, being an arena that was designed with expansion in mind. Opened in 1910, United have remained there ever since and with the successes of the 1950s and early 1960s, the stadium steadily grew in size and capacity. Like all others, Manchester United have had high periods and low periods (the current era being a low) but the club has also has something of an allure to it that sets it apart from any other.

One has to ask therefore, which club in England had had the most sustained period of success since the Premier League was formed in 1992 and – significantly – the same manager throughout? The answer is of course, Manchester United. Is there a lesson there for others?

Old Trafford (Andrea Sartorati)

Forty-nine clubs have competed since the inception of the Premier League in 1992. Six of them have won the title since then: Manchester United (13), Chelsea (5), Manchester City (4), Arsenal (3), Blackburn Rovers (1), and Leicester City (1). The record of most points in a Premier League season is 100, set by Manchester City in 2017–18.

Of those, only Manchester United and Arsenal kept faith with the managers that brought them their success. But Arsenal built a new stadium from scratch. United developed Old Trafford over decades and if one looks beneath the surface, the basic shape of United’s home is the same as it was when the first game was played there over a century ago. Manchester City do not own the Etihad, nor did they pay for it to be built; it was conceived as an athletics arena in Manchester's bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics and City lease it from Manchester City Council. A similar arrangement covers West Ham’s use of the London Stadium but unlike its counterpart in the northwest, West Ham United do not have the financial clout of either of the Manchester clubs, or for that matter, Arsenal and Tottenham.

Building a big new stadium – or moving into one paid for by somebody else – is not a guaranteed path to success. Neither is building a big new stand on your existing ground. Ask Chelsea – the Abramovich era has seen success for the west London club like it had never seen before but often forgotten is that the 1960s saw Chelsea as a glamour club alongside Manchester United but a star-studded team won only the FA Cup in 1970, the UEFA Cup a year later and based on that, a huge new stand was built and the club was promptly relegated, almost disappearing into a financial black hole of its own making. Their rise to current prominence has only come over the last twenty years, primarily funded by Roman Abramovich. In fairness however, Abramovich has built on the foundations laid by his predecessors, Ken Bates and Matthew Harding. The Russian however, sacks managers for fun, no matter how successful any one of them has been while in charge.

Somebody has to lose and only one club can be Champions. And only one club has won all four major honours in England in one season; Manchester City last time out, when taking the league title, the FA Cup, the EFL Cup and the Community Shield. But then, City is not encumbered by the costs of a big new stadium. Sacking Pep Guardiola would be rather silly given the lustre he has brought to the club, should City still not win the European Champions title this season, or even should they not retain their English title. On current form, that seems to be heading to Liverpool. But if Liverpool does not win a thing this season, don’t count on the club sacking Jurgen Klopp. City won’t sack Guardiola either. But Arsenal has still sacked Unai Emery. Chelsea will probably, at some point, sack Frank Lampard and Manchester United Ole Gunnar Solskaer – despite the lessons that can (if they care to take heed of them) be learned at Old Trafford.

Pep Guardiola (Bogdan Hare)

Marco Silva at Everton will probably be the next to go, despite Everton not having a winning record even close to that of Liverpool. West Ham will also and again probably give Manuel Pellegrini the boot. Is there a point? Not really, not while the next one appointed will again get the sack because the team doesn’t win a game or two. Everton made Silva their target while he was at Watford, to the point where the Hornets reported Everton for an illegal approach, before sacking him anyway. Silva did win the Portuguese Cup with Sporting (he was sacked apparently for not wearing the club suit at another cup game), he did win the title in Greece with Olympiacos, but he couldn’t keep Hull City in the Premier League and he hasn’t set the world alight at Everton either. So did the club get it wrong in appointing him? Did Arsenal get it wrong with Emery?

Everton by the way are planning a big new stadium; Arsenal has one; Tottenham Hotspur has one. Whoever takes on the job of manager or head coach at any club will be taking on a job in which it is impossible to succeed and only one thing is certain – the sack. Perhaps, just maybe, at some point, a club might decide to stick with one manager, through thick and thin, accept that they can’t be Champions every season and sustaining a football club, developing its own talent, is just as important as winning a trophy.

© Kevan James 2019

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