Bear with me… this is, indeed, a Post about the current Arsenal team (it will get there eventually).
Way back in the early 1990s an ex Arsenal lad who had moved to pastures new was tearing up the Premier League, scoring goals for fun.
I refer to one Andrew Cole, who had two great seasons at Newcastle from 1993 to 1995.
Such was his form and prowess at the Barcodes that he earned an England call-up under Terry Venables. He made his debut as a late substitute against Uruguay – replacing a certain Mr Edward Sheringham. As Sheringham left the pitch he offered nary a glance towards the debuant; not a handshake; nor even a quick word of encouragement, far less a pat on the back. He just acted as if Cole did not exist.
The perceived insult wounded the tender soul of young Andy and he vowed never to forget it.
Fast forward a year or so and Cole signed for Manchester United where, playing alongside Eric Cantona, he continued to thrive.
But in football, as in life, fate often has a way of putting chewing gum on your bus seat and, sure enough, in 1997 Eric Cantona left United and they replaced him with Mr Edward Sheringham.
As Cole put it some years later: “In the summer of 1997, after Eric Cantona left Manchester United, Sheringham arrived. We played together for years. We scored a lot of goals. I never spoke a single word to him.”
And during that period United were certainly successful.
So does it mean that relationships between players don’t matter? That team mates can hate each other with the sort of loathing that a Totteringham fan has for bathwater?
Well, there are certainly other examples beyond Cole and Sheringham (who, let’s not forget, went to Man United but was still a runt). The Bayern Munich and Germany midfielders Lothar Matthaus and Stefan Effenberg would each have happily seen the other fed slowly into a wood chipper; and in the days of the Wimbledon Crazy Gang (younger readers, be thankful you don’t know what I’m talking about) John “Fash the Bash” Fashanu shared mutual antipathy with Lawrie Sanchez.
In fact it got so bad that Fashanu and Sanchez decided to “sort it out” during a training session. As a black belt in karate, Fashanu was expecting to teach Sanchez a lesson – but I remember Tony Adams once described Sanchez as the hardest man in football (a bit like the Pope describing someone as the holiest person on earth).
Fash’s memoirs take up the story: “Sanch gave me a shot and, give him credit, it wasn’t a bad shot. But I thought, don’t hit Sanch, don’t mark his face, and my mind went back to when Muhammed Ali fought against the martial artist in New York, and the martial artist just kicked the back of his legs until it broke the tissues in his calves and he submitted. So I thought I’d teach Sanch a lesson and gave a sweep of the legs, but Sanch has calves like most people have thighs and he didn’t move. So I gave him another couple, but Sanch came back at me. So I thought, I’m gonna take this guy out, and I hit him with one of the best shots I’d been training with – BAM! Take that, Sanch! – right in the solar plexus, a shot that would supposedly knock a horse down. And still he stood there. Then Terry Burton came over to break us up.”
Anyway, this question of whether it’s better for players to like their team mates occurred to me while watching our game against Liverpool on Saturday.
You will remember the chance that Luis Suarez had towards the end of the match, as Liverpool were struggling to fight their way back from the firm slapping-down which we had been administering.
Suarez profited from a mistake by the BFG and bore down on goal from Liverpool’s left side. He tried a shot which went across the face of goal and wide, not troubling Szczesny. Daniel Sturridge had been racing into the right hand side of the box and felt that Suarez should have passed to him rather than shooting. Whether or not Suarez should have passed is neither here nor there. What happened next was fascinating: Sturridge threw his arms out and back, like a child trying to be a superhero; he jutted out his chin, his eyes bulged and he donned the time-honoured countenance of the mortally outraged (think Stephen Fry being told that – no thanks – no-one was interested in his latest anecdote).
All this was directed at his team mate, Suarez. It was not a brief, understandable moment of frustration of the kind any player can be prone to: Sturridge held this tortured pose for many long seconds. His suffering began to take on Jesus-like dimensions. Poor old Suarez glanced his way but chose not to engage.
At the time I thought: “these are two players who don’t like each other: two selfish goal-grabbers who are in this only for personal glory.” If you feel your colleague should have passed, you talk about it later – you don’t try to humiliate him in front of millions
And despite the examples mentioned above – of bitter feuds festering in successful teams – it cannot, as a general rule, be good to have disharmony within a team.
Look at Arsenal in recent years.
There is no question that we’ve had some troublesome individuals in the dressing room: Samir Nasri, who could probably make the Dalai Lama swear; Emmanuel “all about me” Adebayor; William “Slightly Deranged” Gallas.
And one of the factors in our gradual improvement has been the clearing out of the disputatious types and the forging of strong bonds between the players who remain.
There seems to be a good, mutually supportive vibe among the YBCs (the Young British Core), but experienced, level-headed foreigners like Arteta, Giroud and Mertesacker have also clearly been instrumental in creating unity and fellow-purpose.
It may be easier to say during the sort of successful period we are currently enjoying, but I really feel our squad of players like each other and are playing for each other rather than for their next big money move elsewhere. No-one exemplifies this selflessness better than Olivier Giroud, who seems as happy when he assists as when he scores.
So, to sum up, Sturridge and Suarez will continue to score goals, but football success is often down to fine margins – and not being united on the field is one of those things that can have a slight, but significant, negative impact.
Over the course of the season I would back our Harmonious Heroes to do better than ‘Pool’s Fractious Forwards. We will see.