Do you even remember 1995? Bill Clinton was president, thanks mostly to H. Ross Perot and his “giant sucking sound.” That was the year I graduated from college and got my first (non-military) full time job. With my newfound wealth I was one of the first people to get a cable modem in my town and went from dial-up to “high speed” internet, where I could look at websites like… ok no one really even did web sites back then. All of us cool kids shared stuff on Usenet – that’s where I first learned about flamewars. I’m still having a flamewar with this one guy who goes by the name “Dukeofdanet”.
In 1995 Alt-Right Nationalist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people when he detonated a truck bomb outside the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The Bosnian War was finally coming to a close, marking the end of the first genocide in Europe since World War II. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty, because he convinced a jury that a glove did not fit. Mississippi finally ratified the 13th Amendment, officially ending slavery, on March 16th 1995* just to prove that the Civil War was definitively NOT about slavery (it was).
1994-95 was also the season Blackburn Rovers won the League. Tactics Tim, Tim Sherwood, was the Blackburn captain that season and the team were notable for many players who would go on to be pundits: Graeme Le Saux, Tony Gale, Alan Shearer, and Chris Sutton. Alan Shearer was the top scorer for Blackburn with 34 goals.
Blackburn bought Shearer in 1992 for an English record fee of £3.5m. Blackburn are often accused of buying the League, an accusation which is still much debated but completely understandable. Many fans saw Rovers break records to buy Shearer, keeper Tim Flowers, and then forward Chris Sutton and concluded that Rovers bought the title.
1994-95 was not a good season for Arsenal. George Graham was fired for taking bungs (a cute name for bribes), Paul Merson went to rehab for three months for cocaine and gambling addiction, and captain Tony Adams was at the very height of his alcoholism. Arsenal spent part of the season worried about relegation but eventually clawed 8 points back from their last five games to finish 12th, just 6 points off relegation. Ian Wright was Arsenal’s leading goalscorer and finished the season with 18 goals from 42 matches.
Tottenham also spent the season in turmoil. They started off with a 12 point deduction due to financial irregularities from the 80s but their Lord Sugar was able to get the points reduction removed and instead their fine increased. Tottenham fired their manager, Ossie Ardiles, in November but despite all of this insanity managed to finish above Arsenal in 7th place. Had their 12 point deduction remained intact, they would have finished below Arsenal.
From there, the two teams went in completely different directions. Tottenham sold their leading scorer and FWA Player of the Season, Jurgen Klinsmann, for £1.5m to Bayern Munich and bought Chris Armstrong for £4.5m. Unless you lived in London in the 90s you probably don’t know who Chris Armstrong is/was. Meanwhile, Arsenal went out and bought a guy you may have heard of named David Platt. Oh, and broke the English transfer record by signing Dennis Bergkamp.
Buying Bergkamp was the first piece of a rebuilding process for Arsenal. That next season, Arsenal finished 5th, Tottenham stayed 7th. The next season, Arsenal bought Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka, along with new manager Arsene Wenger. Arsenal finished 3rd, Tottenham finished 10th.
Then in 1997/98 Arsenal went on to win their first of three League and FA Cup doubles. Since then they have added three more FA Cup wins in the last four years. Tottenham won the League Cup twice in that same time. Arsenal qualified for the Champions League for 20 consecutive years and finished above Tottenham every season until 2016/17.
It’s natural to want to look back at the past and even to gloat, after all, our history informs our values. And the past is, most importantly, where we learn from our mistakes.
But there is danger in living in the past. As Ferris Bueller once said before he passed out at 31 Flavors “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
When I graduated college in 1995, the computer lab was 12 computers in a hot room on the 6th floor of a corner building. We used to bring floppy disks to school and print our papers which we had written using Word Perfect. I say “we” but it was really just two of us who did that. The labs were almost always empty. The only people using the computers back then were the handful of nerds who liked to play a video game called Doom. Most of the people my age never took the opportunity to learn how the computers worked, to even use those computers that were there for them, instead using typewriters to write their papers. Those people now tell me, when they are asking me for help with their computer, “oh, I’m computer illiterate.”
The choice for me to start working on computers was born of a combination of luck and deliberate choice. When I was 14, my High School in Alaska was one of the first schools in America to get Apple computers. Officially, we used them for math skills. Unofficially we used them to play Oregon Trail. And for those of us totally off course, we used them to write programs in a language called Basic.
If I look back on my history, I might be tempted to think that hard work and good choices landed me where I am today but the truth is that there was a lot of luck. I literally landed the job I have today because I went up to the director of the library and said “I can do the computer guy’s job better than he is.” The director gave me a chance and I guess it worked out.
The same thing happened to Arsenal, though on a much grander scale. David Dein took a chance on a guy back in 1996 who may or may not have worked out. Wenger was a French manager and it certainly wasn’t easy for foreign managers in English Football back then – Wenger became the very first foreign manager to win the League. There also weren’t fancy metrics to measure managers or the players they wanted, there was just a lot of gut feeling.
Dein’s gut was right, Wenger’s gut was right, and Arsenal prospered. Not through lack of hard work, nor through lack of vision, but you certainly can’t rule out the part that a big pinch of luck provided.
Tottenham worked just as hard during that period. They tried everything to claw back out of Arsenal’s shadow. They had goals, they had vision, and on at least two occasions in the last 22 years they were simply unlucky not to finish above Arsenal or to get Champions League football: a bad batch of lasagna, Arsenal pipping 3rd on the season that Chelsea won the Champions League with the luckiest of performances of all time, and even the season that Tottenham should have won the League, they lost in dramatic fashion to relegation club Newcastle on the last day of the season to gift Arsenal 2nd place.
And their transfer dealings since 1995 have been plagued with bad luck and bad choices. In the last five years Spurs have bought players that Arsenal supporters desperately wanted Wenger to buy: Soldado was a favorite on Le Grove, Lamela was my choice for Arsenal, Dembele was a favorite of Arse2Mouse, Dempsey, Paulinho, Capoue, Sissoko, Janssen, Wanyama, Aurier, Llorente have all been touted as the player who would save Arsenal. None of them (maybe Wanyama) have really worked out. What did work out for them was Harry Kane.
Anyone who told you that they knew Kane would become a 30 goal a season striker before 2016 is full of hyperbole. From 2009 to 2014 Kane scored 21 goals. Total. Kane was a total stroke of luck. He wasn’t the result of great planning. He was just a kid who was given a chance and took it with both hands. Just like Gareth Bale before him. The players themselves should be given a lot of credit for the hard work they put in but all of the credit given to Pochettino and Spurs for his outstanding three seasons is spurious.
But sportswriters and fans rarely see the full picture. I recently heard a prominent journalist give huge credit to Daniel Levy for his work over the past 15 years and suggest that Arsenal could do well to emulate him. But Levy’s track record in the transfer market is less than remarkable. He’s not managed to put together a title winner or even a team that lifted a single trophy, despite having literally 175 millions of pounds at his disposal after the sales of Bale, Walker and Modric. Looking at the trash he bought after each of those sales, if I was a Spurs supporter I’d be terrified of the Vincent Janssens Spurs will buy after they sell Kane and Alli.
As for managers, Pochettino is the best they have ever had and also the 11th manager in 22 years. 11th time’s a charm. All of this hardly smacks of good planning. Rather that they just kept trying and trying until they got a combination that worked.
But it has worked and Tottenham are, for the moment, inarguably the better of the two teams in North London.
A lot has been written about the “power shift” in North London this week. And as I admit above, there is no doubt that Tottenham did finish above Arsenal last season and that they seem like the club in a lot less turmoil this season. Whether that turns out to be a truly seismic event or simply a bump remains to be seen.
What we do know is that Arsenal have three major players out of contract in the summer: Ozil, Alexis, and Wilshere. And we know that this untenable contract failure is the culmination of three years of stagnation. Like there was a lack of planning at the club and that manager, players, and club hierarchy have been happy with status quo.
David Rocastle famously said to Ian Wright: “Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent.” This is the exact kind of reminder that people need from time to time, something which sets them back on the righteous path. But if I could take license I would only change his quote slightly: know who you are, where you are from, and where you are going.
That last bit, about where Arsenal are going, is what strikes existential dread in Arsenal supporters. In 1995 when Tottenham finished above Arsenal and the club was in turmoil, Arsenal started down a path to change their own fortunes. They took a look at who they were, where they were from, and decided to change where they were going.
I expect Arsenal to win tomorrow and I will get up at 4am to watch the match live. But tomorrow’s result is only temporary. Regardless what happens, Arsenal need to take a look back to 1995, the last time Spurs finished above Arsenal, and decide that a change in direction is needed.
*Technically, Mississippi didn’t abolish slavery until 2013. See, there was just this little “oversight” on the part of some clerks who forgot to register the vote with the national archivist. That finally happened in 2013, after which then secretary of state Dick Molpus said, and I quote… “What an amendment to have an error in filing.” Yes, what an amendment indeed.