Tradition matters to British people, we’re serial sentimentalists when it comes to keeping things going. We wear our poppies in November, a week after we burn rag effigies of a radical Catholic who lived and died four hundred years ago; we set fire to our Christmas puddings; and our ludicrously complicated flag can be upside down without most people realising it. We have the Boat Race, Ascot Ladies’ Day, The Ashes (less said, the better at the moment….), Cowes Week, the Chelsea Flower Show, Pancake Day, Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s Birthday (which isn’t her birthday) and the Last Night at the Proms. We have black taxis and red buses. We like tea with milk, chips dosed with malt vinegar, bubble-and-squeak, toad-in-the-hole and warmish, unfizzy beer. Tradition? We’re built for it.
And amongst British football fans, tradition matters to no-one more than the Arsenal fan. “The Arsenal” is the club of history. We revel in something called “the Arsenal Way”, we speak of class and the correct manner of doing things. When we played that title-deciding fixture at Anfield in May 1989, it was important that we acknowledged Liverpool’s tragic bereavement from the weeks before, so our players each laid a wreath in front of the Liverpool fans. And when we knocked Sheffield United out of the FA Cup with a legitimate but unethical goal, the club immediately gave the Blades an unprecedented and unilateral replay.
To us the past, from which our traditions come, matters. We wear history like a badge of honour. The fact that the directors’ boardroom (which none of us is ever likely to see) is oak-panelled matters; the old art deco masterpiece that is our spiritual home on Avenell Road matters; our Clock matters.
And, however illogical it may be, the requirement that our outfield players all turn out in the same length of shirt sleeve matters. The captain chooses the length of sleeve for each match, and that should be the end of it.
And yet a returning hero, Mathieu Flamini, has snubbed that tradition, not once but twice, by raggedly cutting off the long sleeves on his shirt in the recent games against Manchester United and Marseille. His boss has reacted robustly, openly criticising an otherwise golden boy. But Flamini has defended his decision, saying he’s been playing at the top level for ten years and he chooses to wear short sleeves, regardless of the captain’s choice.
Should we be bothered by that?
In the big scheme of things, even in the self-regarding world of professional football, Flamini’s amateur tailoring seems the most trifling affair. He’s a grown man and a professional, surely he should be able to make the choice, whatever “tradition” dictates?
Well, no, he shouldn’t. However silly this tradition may be, it is part of our identity. It’s like the baggy green cap that Australian cricketers wear, or the haka that the All Blacks perform before their matches, or the jacket presented to the winner of the US Masters in Augusta. Like all of those artefacts, the tradition is an innovation, a creation, but it is nonetheless an acknowledged and accepted facet of the club itself.
These little myths and habits are important, they are glue linking the fans to the club and the players. It’s not just about one player in the team right now, it’s about the hundreds of players over decades who have worn the red and white on our behalf, all subject to the same rules. This silly tradition reaches back into yesterday, it places Mathieu Flamini and his contemporaries alongside all their predecessors, from great, ordinary and bad Arsenal sides. The tradition emphasises the club over any particular player.
That’s why Flamini should literally and metaphorically just roll up his sleeves, accept the rule and get on with doing what he does best.
Written by 26May